Rugby Unin: Misuse of the hands

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The Independent Online
SO FAR this season I have seen two National League One games, involving Bath, Harlequins (twice) and Wasps. My chief impression is that, unless purposeful action is taken by referees and by the clubs themselves, someone is going to get killed before the season is out. While the general level of catching and passing has been lamentable, the ferocity - what it is fashionable to call commitment - displayed in tackles, rucks and mauls has been frightening.

And the injuries are already there to prove it. Ten days ago David Pears, of Harlequins, broke his jaw in three places against Bath and will be out of the game for several months. At the time I thought, even with the benefit of field-glasses, that the Quins' full-back had suffered merely a nasty blow to the mouth. My companion, more acute in these matters, said: 'Pears is very badly hurt indeed.'

So it turned out, though I should make clear that no question of foul play was involved. Will Carling gave a sloppy pass which was in this case literally a hospital pass and was, alas, only too typical of the Quins' distribution of the ball in both their matches this season.

But play does not have to be dirty in order to be dangerous. And people can be hurt quite innocently. Many years ago I took a young Englishwoman to Stradey Park to see Llanelli play Aberavon. Cliff Ashton, the visiting outside-half, was laid low through attempting a charge- down.

'Oh, poor man,' my friend said as he remained stretched out on the grass.

'It was the ball that hit him,' a Stradey aficionado explained.

'And what difference is that supposed to make?' she replied.

The Llanelli supporter rolled his eyes heavenwards as if further explanation would be a waste of time; and as, indeed, it would have been.

Players are always going to be injured in this and other ways too numerous to list. No one complains, because in rugby this kind of thing is inevitable. What has developed in the first- class game of today is quite different.

Nor is it always a case of accident, or of injuries brought about by two very heavy men colliding at high speed. Deliberate punching is also becoming more common.

Last season Peter Winterbottom, who is too free with his fists for my taste, punched a Rosslyn Park player. When asked at the press conference afterwards why he had done it, he explained that the same Park player had previously hit Carling. What was he supposed to do, he enquired, when the England captain was struck down before his very eyes?

The correct answer is: get on with the game. This was what Dean Ryan, the Wasps captain, was erroneously allowed to do last Saturday after he had elbowed Simon Dear, of Harlequins, in a line-out, causing a bloodied Dear to leave the field. Ryan claims it was an accident. Fred Howard, the referee, did not see the episode and astonishingly the touch-judge, who was in an excellent position, did not draw Howard's attention to it.

If Howard had seen it, I am not so sure he would have sent Ryan off. From the start, the match was disfigured by pointless punching from the forwards, with Ryan in the forefront of the battle. As far as I could see, Howard did nothing about it. In my opinion, Ryan needs a sharp lesson - from a referee rather from an opposing forward - and the sooner the better.

Howard was more occupied with the new laws, as was understandable. In this respect he performed well. So have the other referees whom I have observed this season. In addition he had a good phrase for the change-of- possession law. When the advancing side protested at the others' put-in following an inconclusive pile-up, he said: 'You took it in. Their ball.' Taking the ball in is a marvellously precise way of describing what a mauling side does.

It has been suggested that this law particularly will make the game less rough by diminishing the importance of second and third- phase possession: so favouring, among centres, the dancer rather than the bulldozer. I hope it does.

But, so far, the struggle for possession has become much faster and much fiercer, because the forwards have so little time available to resolve the contest. If, in attempting to do so, they kick, stamp or punch, referees must send them off.