Rugby Union: Unpardonable blot on the landscape: Chris Rea in South Africa says principles have been sacrificed after the Rodber affair

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DR LOUIS LUYT'S outrage over the punishment or, rather, the non-punishment, of Tim Rodber, is like flamenco dancing in a condemned building. Occupation of the moral high ground can be a lonely and precarious business, as the English Rugby Football Union has itself discovered in the past few days.

The same body which unhesitatingly suspended four England players after the rough-house in Cardiff seven years ago, tame by comparison with the contaminating ugliness of last Tuesday's savagery at Port Elizabeth, has, by hollow words and feverish inactivity in the aftermath of Rodber's dismissal, surrendered for ever the right to condemn others.

As president of the RFU, Ian Beer's response to the shameful episode involving Jamie Joseph and Kyran Bracken during England's game against the All Blacks last November was swift and proper. But central to any moral philosophising is consistency in the application of principles, and on that basis alone Rodber should not have been allowed to play for England yesterday.

Rodber was sent off for retaliation in the face of what was, admittedly, severe provocation by an Eastern Province forward. The fact that he was dismissed by a referee who had lost all control, is an irrelevance. No one who saw the incident, those spectators in the ground or the millions watching on television, could possibly deny that Rodber deserved to be sent off, as did the instigator of the trouble, Simon Tremain, who was suspended on Thursday for a fortnight.

Rodber, as the team captain and an Army officer, should have kept a tight rein on his discipline and his emotions, which had clearly been affected by what had gone before. He had seen the horrific injury caused to Jon Callard, a vicious and craven assault which had taken place in full view of the referee, whose only reaction against the perpetrator was to award a penalty kick to England. He, like the other English players, had been frustrated by the referee's failure to apply the offside law and to prevent some of the wilder excesses of the opposition.

In further defence of Rodber, he is not a dirty player. In the early part of his career, he occasionally allowed his aggressiveness to go beyond acceptable limits, but he heeded the wise counsel of those who had passed down that route before and, in the years since, he has matured into the forward whose play last Saturday was as close to perfection as it is possible to get. Moreover, there are few more agreeable companions on this tour than Rodber.

His instinctive retaliation at Port Elizabeth was therefore an outward manifestation of the inner turmoil he was experiencing but, while it can be rated on the sliding scale of crime as a lesser sin than the premeditated brutality of Joseph, it was nevertheless an unpardonable act which required punishment.

The disciplinary tribunal's failure to administer that punishment is a further blow to the game's tradition of support of its referees. It is not, however, without precedent, and before Dr Luyt, the South African rugby president, climbs too far on to the rostrum of respectability, he should be reminded that three South Africans dismissed in Argentina, and one ordered off in Australia, have also escaped censure in recent months.

The moral of this sordid little tale appears to be that if you must stray, do it on tour. Jack Rowell's view that the sending- off was punishment enough, is understandable but hardly dispassionate. Rowell has been the manager of one of the best-organised, most harmonious touring parties in my experience. As a member of the triumvirate who sat in judgement on Rodber, he has also done a magnificent job for England.

I very much doubt that any of us in his position would have acted differently, but it is questionable whether it is in the best interests of the game. It cannot be, when the authority of the referee is so publicly undermined, although South African referees have made a pretty good job of doing that for themselves. That much, at least, was recognised by Louis Luyt who, in the week before England's departure, sent an SOS call to Fred Howard to come out and deliver a series of lectures to local referees during the tour.

It has, one imagines, been as illuminating for Howard as it has for his audiences. He has been concentrating most of his attention on the 35 referees, known as the fast-trackers, who are operating just below the top level, but who are expected to make the grade within the next couple of years. Between them, they have refereed no more than 100 first-class games. The old dogs, Howard reckons, cannot be taught the new tricks of such a rapidly changing trade.

South Africa's prolonged exile from world competition has meant that their leading referees are incapable of adjusting to the developments that have taken place. This has been most obvious in the games at Port Elizabeth and Potchefstroom, when the standard of refereeing was unacceptably low. But even in the game against Transvaal, which was refereed by Ian Rodgers, ranked number two in the country, there were glaring shortcomings. Technically more competent than most of his colleagues, Rodgers fell down badly on basic detection. He missed Will Carling's try, missed any number of forward passes and missed a dangerous trip on Paul Hull.

Such failures can lead to the kind of frustration which scarred the game at Port Elizabeth. A top referee last Tuesday would have moved quickly to defuse the potential flashpoints which erupted with brutal consequences. But that cannot condone the cynical disregard on both sides for what were serious misdemeanours. Nor can it remove the blot on rugby's increasingly grubby landscape.