James Lawton: Woodward's cries of moral outrage mask discredited history

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The Independent Online

How quickly rugby union moves from the high peaks of superb achievement to the gutter of its thug culture.

No matter that we are in a World Cup year, and that on Saturday the performance of England in Wellington suggested powerfully that at last the northern hemisphere will be doing more than making up the numbers when the big show unfolds later this year. You could still have put the mortgage on predicting the cycle of reaction that followed the disgusting stamping of the defenceless England full-back Josh Lewsey by the All Black forward Ali Williams.

A citing committee formed by an Australian and two New Zealanders, one a QC, ruled that what Williams did was "inadvertent and incidental". What do you do? Laugh or cry? Clive Woodward, England's coach, had no doubt. You cry moral outrage. You wonder where is a hint of natural justice or responsibility for values in the game which is hoping to sell itself all over again on a world stage? The trouble is that in Woodward's case you do this despite your own totally discredited record in the matter.

There is, to be fair, a small but quantifiable difference in the consequences of Williams' action and the equally vile behaviour of the England captain Martin Johnson when, a few years ago, he sickeningly cold-cocked the All Black scrum-half Justin Marshall.

Johnson was stood down by England for one international game. Even so, Woodward lacked any kind of moral underpinning when he railed against the exoneration of Williams - as he did when he tore into the South Africans for their cynical behaviour at Twickenham a few months ago.

You cannot take the high ground when your own hands and knees are covered with some pretty slimy compromise. What else was Woodward's decision to play Johnson in Paris last year in the wake of his brutal punching-out of an opponent in club rugby? Where does Woodward draw his line? Only, it seems, when one of his players is not among the doers but the done.

The basic problem is that rugby has a total blind spot in the matter of proper discipline. In so many respects the Wellington game was a soaring tribute to the game's capacity for superb action. The performance of England's Lawrence Dallaglio alone was a showcase for everything that is admirable at the hard edge: power, vision, nerve and an insatiable appetite for the action. The tragedy is that in this context the behaviour of Williams can be seen by men of sound vision and repute as "inadvertent and incidental". Any fool could see that what Williams was doing was precisely the opposite of "inadvertent and incidental". It was gut-wrenchingly specific. It was trampling on the head of an opponent trapped on the deck.

One of these days one of these high-profile incidents will have the consequences that quite regularly occur lower down the rugby ladder. A victim will have his life ruined. And who among the men who shape the game at the highest level will be able to legitimately point a finger of rebuke? Not the shameless authors of the latest 'citing' scandal. Nor, sadly, the otherwise increasingly brilliant achiever Clive Woodward.