Raugby League: Open verdict on rough justice: The closed considerations of the disciplinary committee have been exposed. Dave Hadfield reports

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The Independent Online
THE 200 and more letters that have flowed into the Rugby League's headquarters since one prominent player avoided punishment have proved yet again that nothing in the game stirs emotions like the workings of its disciplinary system.

To the fan on the terrace, the judicial process has never been much better than a joke - incompetant, inconsistent and biased. But the manner of Kelvin Skerrett's great escape after his televised role in the now

notorious Wigan-Featherstone brawl brought its credibility close to an all-time low.

It also persuaded the Rugby League to break new ground by opening a disciplinary meeting to a handful of journalists. In the cases of Dave Watson, Andy Gregory and even Highfield's hitherto unknown Dave Brown, justice was not only to be done, it was to be seen done.

Sadly, the experience lacked the magic of some of the apocryphal tales of past hearings.

One player took in a copy he had made of the club video in the hope that it would exonerate him. He had recorded it, however, at double speed and finished up with a heavier suspension because of the pace at which the committee saw him steaming into his victim.

That was in the days of larger disciplinary committees which provided former club directors with something to do. The system has now been slimmed down to two matching front rows of three arbiters; in each case a lawyer, an ex-player and a former referee. A player convicted by one threesome can

appeal to the other, and that was Watson's situation in last week's first case.

Watson, the Bradford full- back, had been suspended for five matches for a high, late tackle on Leigh's Andy Cheetham. He gave the distinct impression that he would rather have left it at that, but his club chairman, Chris Caisley, a solicitor himself, made a spirited plea for clemency.

He might have been getting somewhere, even after the tackle had been shown a dozen times, until Eric Lawrinson flexed his forensic muscles.

Lawrinson, the ex-referee of the trio, was also its Mr Nasty, in contrast to the avuncular former Great Britain player, Neil Fox, and the urbane chairman, Peter Higginbottom.

'Why did you go so high? Why did you tackle him 10 feet after he'd passed the ball?' Lawrinson asked. 'I find it difficult to believe that a player of your known skill couldn't

adjust in that space of time.'

After 20 minutes, Watson is called back in to be told that his five-match ban stands. They could have increased it and he looks more relieved than disappointed.

Enter Andy Gregory, sent off the previous Friday night for a tackle to the head of Bradford's Paul Grayshon that had him staggering like a stunned ox.

But they like Andy. Everyone likes Andy. Two members of the committee cluck indulgently about the fact that he's always tackled high. And his record is good; his only sendings- off for violent conduct have brought verdicts of not guilty and his total of five sin- binnings - abuse, scuffling, kicking, dissent and fighting - is modest if varied testimony to 15 years at the top of his trade.

They seem to be fighting an urge to pat him on the head,

until Lawrinson homes in on a weak point in his defence. Why, he want to know, would a waterlogged pitch make you more likely to tackle high? Surely losing your footing would have the opposite effect.

There is, as they say, no answer to that. Four matches.

The committee, in its first public performance, has had two of its easier cases to consider. Even the genial old buffers of disciplinary folklore could have got them right.

Brown, sent off for what must have been one of the few moments of resistance in Highfield's 96-0 defeat by Doncaster, is not there with a solicitor, like his high-profile contemporaries. In fact, he is not there at all, but will be able to read on Ceefax that he is out for one match.

After three hours, the wheels of rugby league justice have ground slow, but they have ground both great and small.

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