James Lawton on Dylan Hartley's ban: Football accepts it has problems, if only the same could be said of rugby
There's a blissful ignorance of how threatened rugby's morality has become
No doubt it will take a lot more than a near flawless Champions League final to make us believe that football is near to the rehabilitation of a seriously battered image. However, the world's most popular game is entitled to at least one concession.
It is the acknowledgement that from time to time it does display some kind of awareness of the extent of its own failings, something which its uppity cousin rugby union, not to mention golf, rarely displays too profoundly even in the most wretched of circumstances.
Events at Twickenham in the weekend Premiership final hardly broke the trend.
Can anyone, for example, begin to imagine the furore, the sheer stomach-clenching sense of crisis, that would have enveloped football if a referee and his assistants, having performed their duties with exemplary professionalism, decided they could not risk the gauntlet of abuse, or worse, that would have accompanied them to the after-match presentation?
Rugby had an anarchy problem at Twickenham, created most outrageously by the serial offender Dylan Hartley and augmented, whatever you thought of Courtney Lawes' escape from punishment for a marginally late and disabling tackle on Tony Flood, by the persistent harassment of officials by Leicester director of rugby Richard Cockerill.
But then you wouldn't have had much of clue on this from the typically airy statement of rugby union's head of discipline, Judge Jeff Blackett.
In a most interesting use of words Judge Blackett summed up the decision to ban Hartley for 11 weeks and wreck his hopes of flying off with the Lions: "We cannot get around the fact that Wayne Barnes [the highly rated referee] was certain that Mr Hartley's comments were directed at him," said the judge.
Also impossible to swerve was the fact that shortly before Hartley accused Barnes of being a "f***ing cheat" he had been directly warned about his language and the tone of his comments.
Judge Blackett added: "Calling a referee a cheat is an attack on his integrity and contrary to the core values of rugby."
The phrase hangs in the air pregnant with the implications loaded into the comment that closed the ESPN television first-half commentary seconds after Hartley had been shown the red card. "This is rugby not football," said the ESPN man, no doubt also fretting about a fresh erosion of rugby's high ground.
Was it "core values" we were hearing of again? Yes, we were, and each time we do so there must be the suspicion that in rugby union there remains in some quarters a blissful ignorance of quite how threatened some of this working morality has become.
In football the outrage over the biting by Liverpool's Luis Suarez of Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic was as fierce as it was legitimate, especially in the light of the fact that it was his second offence. Yet when you review the rap sheet owned by Hartley as he contemplated glory with the Lions in Australia you see a tide of recidivist indiscipline which, had it flowed on to the street rather than the field, might have prompted talk of a custodial sentence.
Of course, down all the years of rugby union's disdain for the mores of football the kind of violent offences committed by Hartley have been routine. Yet, naturally, this didn't prevent Ireland's stalwart hooker Keith Wood saying that the importance of the heavy sentence handed to Hartley was that it would preserve rugby from the kind of indiscipline, and aggression towards officials that so bedevils football.
This relentless assertion of moral superiority would sit better in a game that has shown some serious capacity to heal itself of the most gratuitous violence.
Hartley indeed broke an extremely important regulation at Twickenham but then there were plenty of reasons to ask why on earth he had been given the responsibility of leading the Northampton team into such a heavily charged match. They included convictions for eye-gouging two opponents in a Premiership match, biting Ireland hooker Stephen Ferris in a Six Nations game and, just five months ago, punching Rory Best, the Ulsterman who now takes his place in the Lions squad. How was it possible that a man with such defaced credentials might get to lead England, an honour which was immediately marked by a sin-binning against South Africa last summer?
Football, you have to say, is entitled to ask how a game with such a lofty belief in its own inherent values, which never misses the chance to sneer at the failings of others, could bestow the highest honours on such a relentless offender. Nor could football be accused of being too querulous – in the wake of the latest jibes from rugby – if it speculated on how long it would take one of its leading figures to reinstate himself after the kind of scandal Dean Richards brought to Harlequins four years ago.
As far as rugby union is concerned, Bloodgate is consigned to the remotest history. Richards is lauded for his fine work at Newcastle, which is, of course, hardly surprising in that he was a feted visiting speaker at many clubs when the ink of his three-year suspension, for some of the most outlandish and egregious cheating any form of sport had ever known, was still fresh on the page.
Richards and his many admirers say that he has served his time, however brief it was when set against the scale of his offences, and that this particular slate is clean.
Not too many around Twickenham are prepared to discuss what this says about the enduring and precious core values of rugby, of course, which is just another reason why they should keep their wider judgements entirely to themselves.
Sadly, Froch doesn't get to tell Ward where to go
Carl Froch earned all of the plaudits which came his way after a wonderfully committed defeat of his former conqueror Mikkel Kessler. It was a proper world title fight, hard and unrelenting and confirming all the best qualities of both men, Froch's courage and willingness to take the fight to his man and Kessler's impressive, if now waning, ability to work with menacing precision inside.
It is in the character and talent of such men that lies boxing's best chance of surviving the hype of new and vulgar forms of the old science.
Froch's interest in real fights, rather than easy pay-nights, has been a characteristic of an impressive career and it is entirely typical that he should now be most interested in a re-match with the formidable Andre Ward.
The American's presence at ringside was a compelling reason to believe that Froch will indeed get his chance for revenge. However, it is no slight on him to say that Ward's talent will make him a firm favourite.
The man from Nottingham might also curb his theory that Ward has to prove he is a true champion by fighting away from his own backyard. Ward beat Froch very handily in Atlantic City, which is, of course, separated from his Californian origins by the width of the American continent.
The truth is that champions are champions wherever they appear and Ward acquired the status, with great authenticity, some time ago.
Manassero's charm further shames Sergio
At the end of the week in which the gifted Sergio Garcia gave such worrying signs of arrested adolescence, 20-year-old Matteo Manassero displayed superb maturity in carrying off the PGA title at Wentworth.
He showed a killer streak when producing his driver for the fourth of four play-off birdies and then handled the ceremonials with still more daunting calmness and not a little charm. A star was surely born, over which fact the great veteran Lee Westwood will surely not begrudge any celebration.
Westwood's grief over the disastrous run of four bogeys that ruined his chances was tempered by both an old pro's resignation and an absolute refusal to find any excuse in the sound of an ill-timed camera.
His chances of winning that elusive first major may be ebbing, but no one can imagine that he will not fight to an end which, however disappointing, is unlikely to be bitter.
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