Johnson's ban may help game grow up

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The Independent Online

It's not true that Jo Moore, the disgraced spin doctor, was in charge of the rugby union disciplinary hearing which took six hours to to ban the England captain, Martin Johnson, for three weeks and then released the news at 1am. By that time most newspapers had been printed and the nation had staggered to bed finally satiated by its new passion for watching Scottish housewives sliding lumps of granite over a sheet of ice.

This was, however, the story that the rugby authorities passionately wished would go away. That it would not, and indeed has been given a new lease of life by the decision of Premiership Rugby to appeal on procedural grounds, has at least one major benefit, which will survive the likelihood that Johnson will get to play in the big match at the Stade de France next Saturday on a technicality. It is that rugby union's disciplinary system has been exposed as wholly and pathetically inadequate.

Some diehards may argue that, in the inevitable legislation to follow this appalling case, the game is in danger of being emasculated. The more optimistic theory is that it may now grow up, not as an effete shadow of the old game but as a superior model invested with, of all things, a conscience.

The more encouarging message from the Holiday Inn, Bristol, where the three-man committee sat in judgement on the brutal attack on the Saracens hooker Robbie Russell, was that Johnson had been made to face his responsibilities as the captain of England and an icon for a whole generation of his game in a new and extremely harsh light

Rugby union did not volunteer this stand against gratuitous violence. It was backed into a corner, caught rather haplessly in the consequences of Johnson's serial misconduct. But the message of it, it is hoped, will go well beyond the boundaries of rugby. It might even penetrate the fantasy world of Arsenal, a club which once represented unimpeachable standards of propriety in English football. That reputation has been dragged into the dirt by years of vertiginous decline from its old standards of discipline, and never more dramatically than this last week when Ray Parlour collected the club's 44th red card during the regime of their manager, Arsène Wenger. Wenger and the club's vice-chairman, David Dein, argued that they were victims not of their laxity but some kind of conspiracy.

The distinguishing mark of the defence of both Johnson and Arsenal's appalling record has been gobbledygook.

Clive Woodward, the England rugby manager, argued that Johnson was a victim of his celebrity, that if he was banned so should be every other player who threw a punch? The indignation seemed to flow from the idea that Johnson might be picked upon, made an example of. A disinterested mind had to reel. Fourteen months earlier Johnson had been banned for five weeks, a penalty which conveniently allowed him to play in England's opening Six Nations game against Wales. His offence then was arguably even more savage and gratuitous than the one which left Russell with a closed eye and six stitches.

Wenger said that Patrick Vieira, another serial offender, was being conspired against. If he was an England player heading for the World Cup, he would have none of his disciplinary problems. The invitation was to forget that it is Vieira who makes the fouls and throws the elbows. Dein said that Arsenal were not a dirty team. In broad terms, they are not. But they are an extremely irresponsible team who currently face the loss through suspension of such key players as Vieira and his gifted compatriot Thierry Henry. Robert Pires, another hugely talented Frenchman, has just returned to the team after suspension.

The paradox here is that Woodward and Wenger have proved themselves in different ways superb leaders of sportsmen. England's rugby has never been so rounded or formidable. Arsenal's play, when separated from their failure to control themselves at critical moments, is suffused with the sheer intelligence of their manager.

Yet both men have revealed extraordinary blind spots. They have reneged on the most basic of responsibilities of professional sport managers. They have proved incapable of detaching their own short-terms interests from the wider ones of their games and, ironically, the long-term futures of their teams, who ultimately will win or lose the really big matches on the strength or the weakness of their collective discipline.

Neither Woodward nor Wenger have thus far been receptive to logical argument. But what happened in Bristol on Thursday night, and what is stirring in the corridors of football authority, should impress even upon them the need to look at disciplinary interests with more than one eye. The rugby men simply had no room to manoeuvre when they came to decide between the benefit for England's Grand Slam prospects and the possibility of making another abject surrender to expediency.

In one way, the whole ground of compromise with violence had been cut away. Apart from a few neanderthal cries that rugby had always tolerated violent play and that there was no reason to change now because of the bleatings of a few "hypocrites" – that was the phrase of one leading commentator and former England international and, curiously, police inspector – there was a new consensus that even Johnson perhaps ought not to get away with a full-blooded punch in the face of an unsuspecting opponent. The old vagaries of rugby's judgement of what was acceptable surely had to be reassessed.

Woodward's argument was that Johnson's vast reputation as perhaps the most daunting of opponents since the legendary All Black Colin "Pine Tree" Meads should not expose him to special prosecution. He said that if Johnson was banned for throwing a punch, so should every miscreant. But then, why not? The ambivalence of rugby towards foul play had perhaps never run so deeply since the prime of Meads, an amiable soul off the field but a demon on it, who ended the career of the Australian scrum-half Ken Catchpole with a move that still induces a shudder in witnesses.

That Johnson's attacks on such as Russell and his Saracens team-mate Duncan McRae and the New Zealand scrum-half Justin Marshall, all markedly smaller men, had no such consequences can only be regarded as good luck.

The former England prop Jeff Probyn, not a slacker in the matter of physical confrontation, eloquently set out new guidelines before the Bristol meeting when he said: "English fans will want to see Martin Johnson play against France, but the rugby union have to look beyond that... they will have to realise that if they do not punish him every schoolboy and junior player in the game will say: 'If Martin Johnson can get away with it, so can I'."

The more traditional view came from Probyn's former companion in the England front row, Brian Moore. A lawyer, Moore said: "Media pressure means that leading players will be under ever increasing scrutiny, but I think the important thing is to consider the actual offence."

That is precisely what happened in Bristol after the inadequate response of the referee: a 10-minute penalty for an offence which could have changed a man's life irreparably for the worse. It was a reality which could not be obscured by any number of lumps of granite.

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