Vagana saga tilts the balancing act

Accident or crime? Tackle which left Deacon needing facial surgery raises difficult issues
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The Independent Online

The swinging arm of New Zealand's Nigel Vagana gave Paul Deacon a series of facial fractures so bad that Great Britain's medical staff said that he could have been in severe danger if they had not acted quickly to stop the flow of blood at the back of his throat. He has had surgery to repair his cheekbone and palate and he will not play again until the start of next season - if then.

Small wonder, perhaps, that his chairman at Bradford, Chris Caisley, should feel that the one-match ban dished out to Vagana by an international disciplinary panel on Tuesday was inadequate and "pathetic". The three members of that panel should, he said, "have paid a visit to Paul and seen the screws in his mouth that are holding his face together".

Caisley railed against the inconsistency that saw Vagana get away virtually scot-free, while Bradford will be without Terry Newton for almost half of next season thanks to a long ban for two high tackles when he was still a Wigan player.

It is a fact that international panels are notoriously lenient. They always include a representative of the miscreant's nation, and it is rare for them to hand out meaningful punishments. Vagana's one-match suspension will be painless, as it will be accounted for by last night's B-list international in France, leaving him free to play in next Saturday's Tri-Nations final, should the Kiwis be there.

But New Zealand's representative on the panel, Selwyn Bennett, did not believe his man should have suffered even that inconvenience. "Nothing will convince me that Nigel is guilty," he said. "I think he was careless, but not reckless or dangerous. When you take a good look, you can see it was an accident."

A careless high tackle, as opposed to a reckless or deliberate one, is punishable in itself, and it was of that offence that Vagana was found guilty. What looks out of proportion is that the carelessness that put a player out of action for months should attract only a meaningless, one-match ban. Terms like "thugs' charter" start to be thrown around, and it is not hard to see why.

There needs, however, to be a little caution here. For one thing, the video evidence is inconclusive. From one angle, the impact as Vagana comes in for a routine, second-man tackle looks innoc-uous and inadvertent. From another, Vagana, although he is not looking at Deacon, seems to be swinging his arm with a degree of premeditation.

The reaction of players on the field is often a better guide. Stuart Fielden, a team-mate of Deacon's for club and country, would not be expected to stand idly by if he believed Deacon had been taken out by intentional thuggery, but he has defended Vagana, describing the tackle as perfectly normal.

Richard Horne, who came on to the field to replace Deacon, also saw nothing untoward in the impact, although he admits that the video he saw afterwards left him uncertain whether there had been intent to injure his team-mate. "The only one who knows that is Nigel Vagana," he said. What is certain is that nobody tried to exact any retribution on Vagana during the nearly 60 minutes of the match that remained - and there were plenty of opportunities to do so. Either that was a demonstration of icy self-discipline or the British players simply did not believe that anything outrageous had taken place. Even now they have had plenty of time to watch the incident in slow motion, that still seems to be the opinion of the British camp.

What is unarguable is that it was wretched luck for Deacon, who was, as Caisley observed, on his way to the game of his life when he was struck down.

Brian Noble, his coach for club and country, had left him out of last season's Tri-Nations and did not even include him in the 40-man squad preparing for this year's tournament. But so good was Deacon's form in the Bulls' late charge for the Super League title that he won his place back for the games against New Zealand at Loftus Road and Australia at Wigan.

He did not have things all his own way in either of those matches, but Noble kept faith with him at Huddersfield last Saturday.

That was a decision that was vindicated by Deacon's sparkling form, with clever probing, slide-rule kicking and a brilliant try, in the early stages of that game.

He was watching yesterday from his home in Wigan, with the World Club Challenge against Wests Tigers on 3 February the target for his comeback.