Rugby Union: Fine line divides aggression and thuggery: The death of a player has again raised concern over violence in rugby union. Guy Hodgson reports

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The Independent Online
GRAHAM PRICE had a warning for Wales's young new hooker this week. First scrum in Paris, he said, and the French would 'welcome' Andrew Lamerton with a punch. The former Pontypool prop should know; he played for his country 41 times.

Violence is synonymous with rugby union. Dominate an opposing forward physically and you have succeeded. Make him fear the impact of your body and he will be less effective. A tackle in itself is an act of aggression, the throwing to the floor of a person in a manner that would bring the intervention of the police if performed in the street. All legitimate. All within the rules.

Rugby is a physical contact activity. Take out the clash of body against body and you are left with nothing. Boxing without punching. Sumo wrestling against a scrum-machine. 'Let's face it,' Ray Prosser, a British Lion as a player and later a coach of Pontypool, once said famously, 'rugby is about intimidation. That's the bottom line. Who does it better.'

In the club bar there is the glorification of the strong. Players talk mischieviously of opponents who go beyond the line drawn between legitimate aggression and foul play. Mostly it is exaggeration. An attitude of machismo adopted for one's peers.

Now, however, the sport has had to think again about its attitude to violence. Last weekend a 30-year-old junior club player in Hendon, north-west London, died after he had been punched on the field. The showpiece of the English league season, Bath versus Wasps, degenerated into a brawl until a player was sent off. The game was the advertisement it promised to be, but the product it sold via the BBC was not the savoury item anticipated.

This followed a match between Waterloo and Harlequins in which three players, two of them England internationals, were sent from the field because they were wearing illegal studs. Two incidents of violent play also happened that day, both captured by television cameras, which should have brought club action. If it did, then Harlequins, a pillar in rugby's establishment, have not publicised the fact. 'I have no comment,' Jamie Salmon, the team manager, said. 'The name of the club has been in newspapers too much lately. For the wrong reasons.'

The wrong signals are being sent out, too, judging from the post coming into the BBC's Rugby Special, which broadcast the Bath and Waterloo matches in highlights form. The programme has received several letters from worried school masters, concerned that the image of the game is not the sort they wish to present to their pupils. Parents have also expressed their fears of grave injury to their children.

So is rugby descending into legalised mayhem? Will the natural progression be towards the helmets and armour of American football? Despite the evidence to the contrary, probably not. There are more than a thousand clubs in the Courage leagues in England alone and the manner of Seamus Lavelle's death is virtually unique. There have been three deaths in recent times because of heart attacks but Lavelle was diagnosed as having traumatic head injuries. Further tests are being carried out.

'It may not appear so,' Dudley Wood, the secretary of the Rugby Football Union, says, 'but the level of foul play is lower now than at any time in my memory. When I played there were some people who were not far short of psychopaths who took the field. You knew who they were and it was a worry when you were going to meet them. That doesn't happen today.'

Wood, 62, argues that television has exposed isolated incidents to a wider audience and created a misleading impression. In the past, massive brawls took place to the ignorance of the people beyond those in the ground or those who read newspaper reports. Now a punch thrown in an international will also pitch the pugilist into an item on the Saturday-night television news.

The pictures of players leaving the field early are also misleading. 'Referees are much better,' Wood continues. 'They are instructed to dismiss for repeated violent play. Talk to older officials and they'll tell you they never sent anyone off, but only because they turned a blind eye to what was going on. It used to be considered a reflection of a referee's ability to control a game if he had to send a player off. Not now.'

John Beattie, a British Lion in 1980 and 1983, concurs, believing the climate of violence in the Seventies to have been far worse. 'There have been a few unfortunate incidents recently,' he said, 'but they are isolated. Players know now that if they indulge in violence they are not doing what they should be. If your opponents are scoring a try at one end of the field while you are thumping someone at the other then you really are a complete prat. I did a few stupid things when I was younger but when I got to my mid-twenties I realised, 'This is bloody stupid.' Violence is counter-productive. All you do is get the other team's dander up. They will take delight in proving they are harder, quicker and more skilful than you are.

'A player takes to the field knowing he can get injured, but it's accidents that cause most damage, not foul play. You get hurt in collisons, if you fall and twist badly or make a mistake in the tackle. I've never been hurt by anyone being crazy. I took the view that if someone was throwing punches it was because he was lacking in some way.'

And intimidation? 'Certainly not from thugs. Intimidation in my mind is being on the wrong side of the ball in New Zealand. You know they'll ruck you out of the way quite within the laws. They'll trample all over you but no one will kick you in the head. Anyone who does that is a coward. He should be banned for life.'

Finlay Calder, who led the Lions on their last tour in 1989, was described by the Australian coach Bob Dwyer as a player 'who seemed to be intent on getting away with as much as he could', yet he subscribes to the philosophy that dirty play is futile. 'International rugby can be ferocious,' he said, 'but to persistently foul would be self-defeating because penalties cost matches.

'The game is all about being physically dominant. Yes, you're aggressive, but it's channelled aggression. It's a release. There would be an awful lot of pent-up frustration without rugby.'

It is at junior club level that Lavelle's death has been felt most. 'It's terrible news, tragic,' said Tony George, captain of Bradford-on-Avon club. 'There is hardly any violence at our level. There was a punch thrown in a match recently but it's very rare. That was the first for several seasons.

'We just enjoy having a run-around and then have a drink with the opponents afterwards. I got hit once and had no idea who had done it. Later a man came over with a pint for me to admit he'd done it. Things can happen on the spur of the moment, but it's virtually unknown for anyone to calculatedly thump you.'

Police investigating Seamus Lavelle's death say the incident is being treated as suspicious. Everyone who has ever thrown a punch on a rugby field should feel less comfortable with that news.

(Photograph omitted)