Six Nations’ disciplinary system needs investigating

Global body quite right to summons Joe Marler for his offensive ‘gypsy boy’ comment

World Rugby was right to summons Joe Marler to face an independent misconduct hearing over his "gypsy boy" comment to the Welsh tighthead Samson Lee during England's win over Wales in the RBS Six Nations.

It’s a pity they weren’t similarly motivated to intervene at previous junctures during a tournament which was blighted by its lack of disciplinary citings and failures to promote player welfare, which primarily should start on the field of play.

That it took rugby fully 11 days to make an appropriate response to Marler’s comments is an indictment of the sport. One accepts that Marler was sufficiently repentant to apologise to Lee at half-time in Twickenham, and the comments from his Harlequins club coach Conor O’Shea that Marler is not a racist, but the sport should not in any way try to brush an episode of racism under the carpet.

This is effectively what the Six Nations and the RFU did. The tournament organisers took fully four days to make any statement in response to Marler’s widely reported comment, and then, in their own less than transparent in-house way, decreed that he should not be cited and thus absolved of any punishment because he “acted in the heat of the moment”. This was an astonishing rationale, on which premise just about any act of foul play could be forgiven. Sure isn’t everything in a match done in the heat of the moment?


Racist terminology

The RFU were no better, not once but twice declaring the matter to be closed, when it evidently was not.

One doesn’t have to be a member of the Travelling community to regard “gypsy boy” as inherently racist, and one wonders if other racist terminology was heard on a rugby pitch would the response have been any different. Furthermore, the laws of World Rugby clearly state that verbal abuse of a player “based on religion, race, colour, national or ethnic origin” carries a recommended ban of four weeks.

The whole episode, and inaction of the Six Nations and the RFU, smacked of rugby’s old school ways and was a serious miscalculation. All of this is in stark contrast to the World Cup, when the disciplinary procedures were if anything too heavy-handed, and inconsistent, but the tournament at least served to further clean up the game, not least in outlawing clearing out players around the neck.

However, the Marler incident was by no means the first to demonstrate that the Six Nations’ disciplinary process was at times hopelessly inadequate.

Think back to the second weekend in Paris and not only the failure of Jaco Peyper and his officials to yellow card Yoann Maestri for his late cheap shot on Johnny Sexton. The Six Nations did issue a citing commissioner warning to the French lock, which effectively meant Peyper and co should have sinbinned Maestri, but the citing commissioner did not deem the late shoulder charge worthy of even a citing.

To compound this though, the match citing commissioner Paul Minto (who was appointed by the Scottish Rugby Union as the chosen union from one of the non-playing countries) made a citing complaint against Guilhem Guirado for an alleged infringement of law 10.4(e) regarding high tackles.

This was the incident in the 26th minute in the Stade de France when the French hooker and captain tackled Dave Kearney. One could argue, as a former Irish international did after repeated viewings that evening, that Guirado's tackle was actually legitimate, in which case rugby really does have a problem in its duty of care to its participants, never mind the image of the game that high hit conveyed to the watching millions.

Be that as it may, Minto (a former player who attended the match) deemed the hit worthy at least of a citing. However the Six Nations’ disciplinary rules allowed their own disciplinary officer to refer that citing complaint to a citing officer, which in this instance he did, and the said independent citing officer (Alan Mansell). He, for some reason, determined that Guirado did not have a case to answer as the incident did not warrant a red card. In effect, he disagreed with the match citing commissioner.

As with its disciplinary procedures, by and large, the standard of refereeing in the Six Nations was not as good as at the World Cup, which had a generally high standard. After the ball had been knocked forward by Scotland flanker John Hardie, it hit the Australia scrumhalf Nick Phipps before being picked up by the Scotland prop Jon Welsh, who was in front of both players. The law states that Welsh was played onside as a result of Phipps playing the ball with intent.

Erroneous decision

Joubert didn’t help his cause by running from the pitch as soon as he blew for full-time, but he didn’t deserve World Rugby reviewing the incident and coming to the conclusion, which they made public, that Joubert had erred.

If World Rugby was to investigate one erroneous decision and declare its findings publicly, why not them all? There are wrong decisions in every game. The time it took for the ball to be knocked on by Hardie and reach Welsh was four-tenths of a second. They’d be better off revising their own law. As of now, it smacked of playing to the gallery.

On this occasion, World Rugby had to wait for the Six Nations and the RFU to take action, or not, before stepping in, and no less than leaving Joubert hanging out to dry, their response smacks a little of a PR exercise in response to social media. But it was merited and better late than never. What they really need to do though, is carry out a thorough investigation of the Six Nations’ whole disciplinary apparatus.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times