Rugby Union: Rugby's box of tricks

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FROM time to time I like to get out of the press box and stand on the touchline, or as near to it as I am allowed. It is the best position from which to view close forward play. My impression is that, while rugby is rougher, tougher, above all faster than it was 25 or 30 years ago, it is less dirty.

It is difficult to arrive at definite conclusions, for several reasons. One is that dirty play is difficult to spot. Another is that it is impossible to quantify. The most important is that it is a question of definition.

I can only define by example. Thus: bag-snatching (or testicle- grabbing), gouging, biting and scratching are all dirty. Any deliberate kick aimed at the head is not dirty but criminal. Punching is not so much dirty as what I call foul play and others, robust.

'Sledging' is a problem which has been publicised in the last couple of months, though it has always been around in one form or another. The only solution is for referees to acquire sharper ears.

Raking is the most disputed area. I was present 15 years ago when the then England lock, Chris Ralston, was raked playing for Richmond against Llanelli. There were threats of legal action instigated by Ralston's father. Llanelli went to ground. And fixtures between the two clubs were cancelled.

But the New Zealanders have always had a more robust approach. I was not surprised at the episode involving Phil de Glanville. What surprised me more was that it was the only incident of that type.

The reason there were not more of them was not that the All Blacks had become gentler in their ways. It was that partly (though not entirely), in deference to the new laws, they had modified their style of play. There was - there is - less emphasis on rucking and more on mauling.

Whatever definitions one chooses to adopt, the latest allegations in British rugby are to do with dirty play. The accused clubs are Bath and Newbridge. The former are accused by Harlequins and a London Irishman, the latter by Cardiff.

The Cardiff player is the scrum- half Andrew Moore. He complains - I use 'complain' neutrally, not as a synonym for whinges or whines - that a Newbridge player gouged his eye, giving him the most painful experience of his life.

The Harlequins player is the lock Troy Coker. He complains of gouging and testicle-grabbing by a Bath forward. The London Irish player is a No 8, Howard Lamb. He complains of gouging by a Bath forward, whom he has named, in last Saturday's match. The Quins match was played on the previous Saturday.

Coker's complaint - supported by the Quins manager, Jamie Salmon - is the only one which has so far been fully investigated. The investigators were: the Bath chairman, John Gaynor; the secretary, John Quin; and the captain, John Hall. They found there was no case to answer. But according to Salmon it was: 'Perfectly easy to see who was responsible,' for the assault on Coker.

Bath's secretary, having enquired with his colleagues for five hours, interviewing 'pretty well' every member of the Bath pack, said: 'It will appear in some people's eyes, no doubt, to be a whitewash. But you cannot go round doing players of your own club if there is no hard evidence to show they were misbehaving.'

Just so. You cannot go round 'doing' players of your own club. That, after all, is the reason for the rule, applied to all quasi-judicial proceedings, that no man should be judge in his own cause. How can Gaynor or Quin, how - above all - can Hall be expected to be a disinterested judge? I would propose that each division of the Courage league should have its own disciplinary committee, with cases to be decided on a monthly basis, for high calibre figures could not probably spare the time to attend weekly.

In the meantime, I suggest that every forward confronting Bath should now follow the example of the Begles-Bordeaux front- row, and wear, in addition to his customary under-shorts attire, a cricket box.