Rugby Union: Time to blow whistle on beast within: Fight to curb foul play as high stakes result in new breed of violence. Steve Bale reports

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The Independent Online
WELCOME to a new, World Cup rugby season, and if you imagine that the 'amateur' game is overwhelmed - to the exclusion of all else - by the debate about those inverted commas, you would be only part right.

It was Ian Beer, erstwhile president of the Rugby Football Union, who identified the threat to rugby union as money and violence, and while opinions differ about the former everyone ought to be able to unite around the eradication of the latter.

In fact Beer, true to RFU form and with some justification, directly linked the two, and the hypothesis that money - meaning the professionalisation of the game - would be the root of the evil of violence is a reasonable one. The higher the stakes, the greater the potential for unpleasantness.

The stakes were fairly high when South Africa toured New Zealand and a welter of viciousness culminated in the sending-home of Johan le Roux for biting Sean Fitzpatrick - the sort of ghastly offence that was thought to have disappeared since the pre-television days of 30 or more years ago when some clubs were reputed, only half-jokingly, to have menu cards rather than match programmes.

The stakes, in a purely rugby-playing sense of course, will never have been higher than in next year's World Cup. Rugby's shop-window will never have been more glittering, and so the potential for a metaphorical ram- raid of physical excess which will leave the sport discredited clearly exists.

The International Board has been accused of many things, not least inertia, but under the fresh and thoughtful chairmanship of Vernon Pugh QC it is at least trying. 'Because of the incidents which have been highlighted recently, at the board's interim meeting in Vancouver in October we are going to see what disciplinary procedures should be laid down for the World Cup,' he said.

'We are certainly going to consider what guidelines are to be given to referees to ensure consistency as it relates to foul play, and to make certain that if a player is sent off or cited that the punishment is consistent no matter which country is involved or who happen to be the adjudicators.'

Rugby has not had a foul- play problem at its two previous World Cups, so this - unlike the crackdown at football's recent World Cup in the United States - is a response to the general rather than the particular, though Le Roux's unsavoury eating habits and England's vicious game against Eastern Province in June have usefully focused opinion.

Then, Elandre van den Berg escaped scot-free after opening up Jonathan Callard's face, and so did Tim Rodber and Simon Tremain when they were judged by their own team managers after being dismissed for punching. 'There has been a concern about what happened in South Africa on the English tour, about Rodber and Tremain being disciplined by adjudicators who clearly had an interest,' Pugh said.

As to the wider question of whether rugby is becoming dirtier, the answer is ambiguous. Fred Howard, who refereed 20 Test matches and is now the RFU's referees' coach, said: 'Domestically, the Courage league has helped in limiting violence, especially with experienced referees who can use that pressure to keep control.

'But in certain areas of the world it has increased. The use of the boot on vulnerable parts of the body in some countries, South Africa being one, and poor refereeing and lenient sentencing have encouraged that trend. How can you justify no action being taken over the Callard incident? How can you justify it to a junior player when two guys are sent off in an England tour match and no further punishment is imposed?'

These are issues the IB will soon try to resolve. 'I don't think a root-and-branch problem exists but at the most competitive levels there is a greater readiness to indulge in a type of violence that we have not, historically, seen in the game,' Pugh said.

'There is more of a readiness and acceptability to cause quite serious harm as opposed to what you can do with your fist.

'In particular, it's the boot to the head in a way that would not have been contemplated or accepted by players 30 years ago. Kicking on the head was a no-go thing then. There is a grave concern, given the damage you can do with your boot, that we should be very hard on someone who does it.'

The issue is more pressing for the IB than merely the World Cup, as a consequence of a House of Lords ruling last year which deemed consent to be no defence to a charge of assault in a case involving sado- masochistic rituals.

There are those who would consider rugby itself a form of sado-masochism but, joking aside, the judgment has serious implications. The Law Commission has since prepared a discussion paper for sports bodies to which the IB, under its barrister chairman, is preparing a written response.

'The traditional view has been that if you were tackled hard and were hurt, then you consented. That may no longer hold good,' Pugh said. 'If somebody, even acting within the rules, intends to harm another player, that may be sufficient to substantiate a criminal offence.

'It would be beneficial that people knew where they stood. I suspect one of the reasons why we have the current difficulty at international level is not only the intensity of the competition but because there is no absolute uniformity in terms of punishment if someone is seen to be trangressing.

'The Law Commission paper is important because most of the major rugby-playing countries are common-law countries in sports terms and would all be expected to apply similar principles to violence in sport. Rugby is a physical- contact sport which, by its very nature, occasionally boils over. But that is an explanation and not an excuse.'

(Photographs omitted)