France fined £2,500 for standing up to haka... to general disbelief

Richard Cockerill, who famously went head to head with war dance, amazed by IRB 'madness'
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The Independent Online

At least it brought a smile to the face of Richard Cockerill. It did rather more than that, in fact. Leicester Tigers' director of rugby had a job not falling off his chair in a laughing fit when he was informed after training yesterday that France had been fined £2,500 for having dared to front up to the haka before their 8-7 defeat against New Zealand in the World Cup final at Eden Park.

The reaction was pretty similar all around the oval-balled world on a day when the International Rugby Board seemed to be venturing to extreme lengths to have a belated last laugh on their quadrennial global knockout show. It was bizarre enough when the announcement was made that Wales had dropped two places in the governing body's world rankings, from sixth to eighth, despite having played a tour de force of a tournament in reaching the semi-finals. Then came news that the French had been hit in the pocket for crossing the line in both the metaphorical and literal sense as the hosts performed their traditional Maori war dance prior to kick-off on Sunday.

"It's madness, innit?" Cockerill said, after he had composed himself sufficiently to pass comment. It was, of course, the Rugby man – the former hooker from the hometown of the game – who gave the most celebrated response to a haka. Lining up for his first start for England, against the All Blacks at Old Trafford in November 1997, he crossed the halfway line and locked heads with his opposite number, Norm Hewitt. "Cockers, what the f*** have you done?" his unimpressed team-mate, Martin Johnson, said to him after the pair had been prised apart. Hewitt and the wound-up All Blacks exacted retribution over the course of the 80 minutes that followed, to the tune of a 25-8 victory. In Auckland last Sunday, the New Zealand crowd and the men dressed in black appeared to take the response of the French players, who formed a V-shaped formation and stepped in unison beyond their 10m line and over the halfway line, in the spirit in which it was intended – as a spirited gathering-up of the gauntlet laid down by the home side.

IRB regulations, however, stipulate that opposing teams must remain behind their 10m line. Australia were fined £1,000 for making a similar breach at the Women's World Cup last year.

"The haka is a great New Zealand tradition but I don't think the French were out of order," Cockerill said. "Fair play. I thought it was great theatre. Without turning it into a free-for-all, the opposition should be able to do whatever they want. I don't think it's an issue."

Darren Shand, New Zealand's team manager, was in agreement. "They came to play and that was great," he said. "The culture challenge is that. It should be done and then we get on with the real stuff."

There was much Gallic shoulder shrugging at the decision, naturally. "Thierry Dusautoir tried to stop them and there was a bit of movement bringing them forward," Marc Lièvremont, France's head coach said. "But a fine? I don't know." Dusautoir, the French captain and blindside flanker, maintained: "It was a great moment and a moment we will remember all of our lives. At one stage we were so close to them that they wanted to kiss the New Zealanders, but I told them to take it easy." Indeed, there was no need for a French kiss.

As for the IRB, it insisted it was playing it by the rules, saying in a statement: "As with other in-tournament breaches of the tournament cultural ritual protocol and as per pre-tournament communication with teams, Rugby World Cup Limited will impose the standard sanction of £2,500."

Cockerill himself was counting the cost of the World Cup yesterday – not just the five (out of six) Aviva Premiership matches lost by his weakened Tigers while 12 Leicester players were on international duty in New Zealand but a recurrence of the problem that forced Ben Youngs to have the cartilage in his left knee trimmed in June. The England scrum-half will be out of commission for his club's crucial fixture at Sale on Friday night.

"His knee's not great," Cockerill said. "He needs to do more rehab on it and at this point he's not fit to play."

Asked whether he felt Youngs' situation had been "mismanaged by England," Cockerill replied: "His knee's not in ideal condition. It probably hasn't been rehabbed as thoroughly as we would have. Our medical team feel that he's not at a sufficient level from a knee-strength point of view to be playing.

"For us, our player management and welfare is key. We spend a lot of time looking after our players and not playing them when they're unfit."

World's upside down: Wales slip to eighth

1. New Zealand 91.43

2. Australia 87.42

3. France 84.70

4. South Africa 84.34

5. England 81.58

6. Ireland 80.65

7. Argentina 80.28

8. Wales 80.18

9. Tonga 76.63

10. Scotland 76.20