Rugby Union: Stamp out the violence

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THE HIGHER a player's profile the more skulduggery he is likely to get away with on the pitch. That's one of the home truths to be faced before rugby union gets anywhere in the attempt to solve the discipline problem that is fouling up the game's image.

Even in my day, as the Welsh outside-half, I reckoned I had a certain leeway when it came to that split-second when a referee has to decide how to deal with a violent act. I didn't take advantage of it very often but if there was a need to remind an opponent that I wasn't prepared to be pushed around I was confident that I could get away with making his life a little uncomfortable; particularly in the first 10 minutes. At least, I can claim self-defence.

It may not be anything to be proud of but that is the way the game has been for years. Far be it from me to suggest that this was the case at Twickenham last weekend when Martin Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio were accused of dastardly deeds against the Scots but the fact that one is captain of England and the other captain of the Lions would not have harmed their cause.

Referees are not biased towards the international stars but, perhaps subconsciously, they are more reluctant to punish them as severely as they would lesser-known players. This fits in with the whole culture and tradition of a game that must soon come to terms with the fact that it has never been under the spotlight as it is now and that a lot of people don't like what they see.

I am fully aware that there is no more violence in rugby now than there used to be. It might even have been worse years ago. But that is no reason to dismiss the criticisms. Image is more important now than it has ever been and we can't pretend that the old habits are justified. There's hardly a minute of play that isn't televised or videoed so there is a far greater responsibility on players to behave themselves. They can't have higher rewards without accepting a higher level of discipline.

Hard physical contact is an integral part of rugby and the game would be ruined if we attempted to soften it up. But there is a big difference bet-ween the vigorous and the violent. There is no excuse for stamping, punching from behind or tackling neck-high. Parents will steer their kids into other games if they continue to see our top players committing these offences with no regard to the serious injuries they could cause.

The only way to stop them is to hand out strict punishment as if you mean it, but I doubt if the present system can achieve that. Rugby's disciplinary structure is such that too many dirty players are wriggling through too many loopholes and it will not be put right until we introduce a more independent way of cracking down on the culprits.

There's obviously too much going on for the referees to be aware of, even with the help of the linesmen, and although the clubs are free to cite opponents they believe are guilty of foul play many of them hold back for fear of causing lasting bitterness. In any case, clubs are far better at decrying opponents than they are at dealing with their own miscreants.

We wouldn't have a problem if players could control themselves or if the clubs clamped down. Not even playing in the Five Nations stops some players from being viciously inclined and their countries are not quick to disown them.

It seems that the only answer is to bring in some independent disciplinary body to investigate the worst cases. This body should include ex-players and other experienced rugby men who are not connected with the clubs or the unions and can sort out the innocent from the guilty. It requires unbiased experts to differentiate between raking and stamping and to decide what is accidental and what is deliberate by studying the body language.

I'm not talking about the minor offences but those dangerous incidents that cause so much resentment. As in rugby league, union refs should be able to put players on report if they find it difficult to make judgements on the spot. And we should do away with the odd rule that once a referee disciplines a player he avoids further punishment.

No player should be able to wriggle out of the consequences of his conduct. Hard players we can admire, but the vicious can't be tolerated.