Johnson ban must start fight against thuggery

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The Independent Online

David Pannick, QC and judge, did a pretty good job of clearing up the Martin Johnson mess, though inevitably some will see his work as less than Solomonesque.

For example, he might reasonably have decided, given the player's dismal trail of "previous", that Johnson's appeal demanded not only rejection but an increase in the sentence of three weeks' suspension for an unprovoked assault brutal even by the England captain's own formidable standards.

Johnson, after all, received five weeks around this time last year for a similar bout of thuggery, and the normal pattern of justice is that serial offenders tend to encounter a rising scale of punishment until the moment someone decides to throw away the key.

That debating point aside, however, Pannick plainly performed a valuable service in cutting through some of the more specious arguments in support of the idea that 10 minutes in the sin-bin was adequate punishment for an offence which could have left the Saracens hooker, Robbie Russell, with brain damage.

Most importantly, Pannick created a watershed in rugby union's plainly inadequate response to the problem of systematic, indeed institutionalised violence. As he said, the game is now obliged to come up with a disciplinary procedure which provides for the kind of pitiful refereeing which, had it been allowed to stand, would have inconvenienced the guilty man for no more than 10 minutes.

Reactions from within the game were depressingly predictable, and shorn of any logic that intruded on the force of self-interest. Peter Wheeler, the chief executive of Johnson's club, Leicester, declared: "Martin is captain of England and is always going to be someone who is high profile. They said it wasn't because it was Martin. It is very difficult to believe that. It's fairly obvious if it wasn't Martin in that incident nothing further would have happened."

This, bear in mind, is not from some unreflective rugger hearty but the top man at the most powerful club in the land. His argument is that because Newcastle's Micky Ward performed an offence which according to connoisseurs in these matters was even more horrendous than Johnson's, and suffered only a spell in the sin-bin, the England captain should have gone unpunished. Something here is about face. Johnson deserved every minute of his three-week ban, and perhaps Ward warrants even more. By all means, nail Ward under the procedures which got Johnson. Indeed, there should be a clamour for precisely that development, along with the absolute priority of a new disciplinary system which spells out the requirement that all offences on the field are properly measured and punished. Referees regularly consult technology for disputed tries. It is surely as important to have a proper accounting of a game's moral content as it is its score.

Leicester's director of rugby, Dean Richards, so beloved of England followers, argues for a reappraisal of the system but with perhaps not quite the same emphasis.

After Pannick had ruled, Richards said: "I'd like to see a review of the whole procedure. It won't be the last time someone is punched. It certainly opens up a can of worms with the referees. We have a professional game run by amateurs."

If this is true, and it is not likely the airwaves are about to be flooded with any contradictory view, who can seriously dispute that the action of the game's disciplinary officer, Robert Horner, and the subsequent events concluded by Pannick, did not represent a serious move towards a more professional order?

Horner must certainly be seen by some as the hero of the piece. Others may argue that he simply submitted to media pressure created by Johnson's celebrated place in the game, but what was his alternative? A lame submission to the argument that the Rugby Football Union had no powers to intervene in a situation where working disciplinary arrangements had been revealed to be wholly inadequate. Horner declared: "Martin was here because of the punch – and nothing else. It was the nature of the punch, the severity of the punch."

So what about Micky Ward's punch? It is a fair question which will now surely be an important factor in the rugby union's recasting of its disciplinary system. Thuggery is thuggery wherever it occurs and whoever is responsible for it and this surely has to be the foundation of the new approach.

Richards talks about the opening of a can of worms. He would be better thinking in terms of a coming of age for a game which seems to want all the advantages of professionalism but with few of the obligations.

The Johnson affair was not about a commotion in the media. It was about a deep-seated flaw in the game of rugby union. It was about what happens when no one, and in this case including regrettably the coach of the England team, is prepared to make a simple choice between right and wrong. Of course the disciplinary system was a joke, and this was equally so as it was applied to the captain of England and some obscure roughneck in the mists of coarse rugby.

Johnson's celebrity simply concentrated the minds of many who for so long had drifted along on the belief that uncontrolled, and virtually unpunished violence, was an integral part of a modern, professional game.

That it cannot be so was briskly decided by a leading jurist this week. He looked at "The Punch". He weighed its meaning, considered what it said about the personal discipline and instincts of the man who threw it, and acted accordingly, albeit a little mildly for some taste. The Johnson affair was over, but rugby's trial, on a vital issue, had just begun.