James Lawton: Exploitation of spear tackle controversy shows it is time for rugby to grow up

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The Independent Online

He doesn't bother with the game any more. He didn't like what happened when this most physical of activities became professional, or, put another way, when a big profit motive was added to the old imperatives of kicking and punching and gouging your way to a swift 10 pints in the clubhouse.

He said: "I knew it would bring into play elements that would stretch the limits of ambition and violence quite seriously, and I thought it was something people in charge of rugby hadn't really thought through. Unhappily, it seems I was right." For reasons that are quite obvious, the author of this opinion would wish to remain anonymous.

One of the developments he least celebrated in the game that he once relished was the arrival of Alastair Campbell as adviser to Sir Clive Woodward on the Lions tour of New Zealand which - for all the current book launch smokescreens - was, please believe someone who saw it close up, one of the most unmitigated disasters in the history of British sport.

The revulsion of the scientist may have had something to do with the fact that earlier he had taken more than a passing interest in the demise of his colleague Dr David Kelly, the defence consultant who walked fatally into a maelstrom of media attention fashioned by a government advised by, well... maybe we should remain, for the purposes of the point being made here, within the boundaries of our own tumultuous little playpen.

Perhaps it is enough to consider the lingering influence of Mr Campbell on the polemics of rugby. Surely the great guru of spin was smacking his lips this week at the absurd, and utterly cynical, re-floating of the Brian O'Driscoll "spearing" controversy. Another angle, we were told, was provided by an amateur video, one suppressed, miraculously in all the circumstances of today's communication and PR industry, until the point of O'Driscoll's book launch, which we were supposed to believe changed a piece of unquestionably reckless play into a deliberate attempt to seriously, perhaps even fatally, injure the Lions captain.

At the time of the incident on that wind-and-rain-scoured night in Christchurch - and before Woodward and Campbell arrived in the media hotel with their video and their special pleading - a brains trust of old internationals was consulted. Not one of them was a New Zealander, not one of them had a conflict of interest. The unanimous verdict: All Black captain Tana Umaga and hooker Kevin Mealamu had plainly roughly dumped O'Driscoll.

They had been guilty of a recklessness that even in the highly charged atmosphere of the first minute of a keynote Test match almost certainly warranted one yellow card, maybe two. There was also a suggestion that the nearby touch judge might have been more of a presence. However, no one thought they had seen a maiming attempt.

This week, in the light of the new evidence, I returned to the brains trust and was told by one of them: "I heard all the buzz about this new film and I raced home to see it. The short answer is that I saw nothing to change that original view. There was one old factor and one new one. The old one was that an extremely negative experience, i.e. a total wipeout in the Tests, was being clouded again ... and the new one was that books were being published and money was being made. It seems to me that rugby has to move on ... and grow up."

One of the more startling remarks uttered by Woodward in New Zealand - something right up there with the declaration that how you got on in Tests was not the only criteria of a successful tour - was that there was a clear divide between the morality of punching people in the face and firing them at the turf.

It is a tricky point to absorb, especially if you remember how fervently Woodward used to defend his old England captain, Martin Johnson, when he waded into some overmatched opponent, not least the All Black Justin Marshall, who was treated so severely. Ironically, it was Marshall who took the trouble to commiserate with O'Driscoll in the wake of the Christchurch incident. Among other ironies this week was the charge by O'Driscoll's Lions team-mate Gavin Henson that the captain had "gouged" him in one game.

Gouging though is not a spearing, no more than punching, but the point surely is that illegal violence is dangerous in any way it comes. Ask the relatives of brain-damaged or dead boxers about the benign nature of a punch thrown at the wrong time or the wrong angle.

The truth is that the reaction to the O'Driscoll incident was exaggerated - but only when set against so much that passes for acceptable violence in rugby. As the former devotee who moved on to another, and perhaps more intractable, moral problem was saying, rugby indeed needs to think a few things through. If it ever happens, spin doctoring should be the first casualty.

Despite the hype, Murray is still in the foothills of Mount Federer

As one Daily Mail columnist is fond of saying, you couldn't make it up. But there was the headline glowing on the page, "Murray has the look of Federer".

How many times have we been down this road before? Roger Federer is an exquisite tennis player who has virtually annexed Wimbledon. Andrew Murray is a young player of considerable promise who this week, in one of the most esoteric all-British sports events ever held in Switzerland, with the possible exception of the annual battle for the Cresta Run Cup in St Moritz, beat an apparently injury-wrecked Tim Henman in three rather ordinary sets before a sparse crowd in something called the Davidoff Indoor tournament. Mount Olympus, it wasn't.

However, this didn't deter the BBC from clearing its afternoon television and radio schedules and running commentaries which smacked of an old conversation between Malcolm Allison, then coach of Manchester City, and Vic Bernard, chairman of Stockport County. Mr Bernard told Allison: "This season we will be promoted from the Third Division, next season we will get up from the Second, and then we will be going for the title." Allison turned to his companion and said: "Let's clear off before he wins the European Cup."

There is a very good chance that the teenager Murray will do a whole lot better than County but with a world ranking of 70 it is still a little early to say. Henman accepted his plight with a world-weary resignation. Yes, whatever it was - a torch or a baton - by all means let it pass to the young pretender, he said. He has, surely, done his bit for British tennis, and, by way of reward, become one of the richest nearly men in sport's history.

Whether Murray adds a Grand Slam or two to a guaranteed fortune depends quite significantly on the degree to which he backhands away the kind of euphoric nonsense that has swirled around his tousled head this week. British tennis has been a risible item ever since Annabel Croft announced her retirement in favour of a career in television and promptly said the first thing she was going to do to ensure success was go on a diet.

That said a lot about the state of the British game. So, too, this week did the brainless hype surrounding the progress of a talented young man along the foothills of his sport.

A prayer for George - and Paul

As if the plight of George Best wasn't poignant enough, Paul Gascoigne tells us that he has been losing sleep over the health crisis of the legendary Northern Ireland player.

There was a time when the young Gazza announced that he would surpass the deeds of Best. That illusion crumbled down the years, along with the belief of most young and gifted men that they are immortal. Now, as Best fights for his life, we can only hope that Gascoigne, the new manager of Kettering, is able to make the best of what is left of his. Both men have had the benefits of genius. . . and much of the pain. Enough, no doubt, to warrant our prayers and, if we remember the best of them, our thanks.

* The declaration by the old warhorse Alan Shearer that he thought long and hard before deciding the "coward's way" was to punish Grimsby "hard man" Justin Whittle with fisticuffs, rather than the winning goal, after an elbow to the head, sounded noble at first. Then you took a look at the growling Whittle. Shearer, no doubt, made the right decision, but was it out of statesmanship - or sheer self-preservation?