Shaw's injustice leaves a sour taste

New Zealand 36 England 12
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is enough to make a bashful country parson swear like a trooper. Three Antipodean disciplinarians should have spent yesterday confirming what the rest of rugby-loving humanity could have told them the previous evening - that the innately decent, fair-minded Simon Shaw is not a player who would even consider ramming his knee into the unprotected head of a rival laying helpless on the floor. Shaw was indeed acquitted of the alleged assault on Keith Robinson, the All Blacks lock, for which he was dismissed at Eden Park on Saturday, but only on a technicality. He was not exonerated, as each and every one of his peers believed he should have been.

This is intolerable. The fact that Shaw's name will forever be bracketed with two notorious ruffians of the red rose game - Mike Burton of the 1970s and Danny Grewcock of the here and now - as the subject of a sending-off in a Test makes the weekend events at the greatest of New Zealand's rugby cathedrals stink like a sewer. The outcome of yesterday's disciplinary session should have reflected what Clive Woodward, the England coach, correctly described as the "massive overreaction" of the match officials, most notably the Australian touch-judge Stuart Dickinson, who was directly responsible for Shaw's public humiliation. Instead, there was not the remotest suggestion that they might have got it badly wrong and, in the process, wrecked a Test of epic potential.

Shaw was represented by Richard Smith QC, the world champions' travelling Rumpole, who alerted the tribunal to the fact that Dickinson, who reported the incident from a less-than-handy vantage point some 50 metres away, and the referee Nigel Williams had consulted the television match official in an effort to establish Shaw's identity and had therefore acted outside of International Rugby Board regulations. (The TMO can adjudicate only on try-scoring incidents). Smith successfully argued that the officials' error rendered Shaw's dismissal invalid, which is all fine and dandy except he was sent off, England did play 70 minutes with 14 men, and inevitably lost the game.

What is more, the stain on Shaw's character remains, for the simple reason that the rights and wrongs of the incident - the precise details of who did what to whom and how hard - were never discussed. Had the tribunal handed down a verdict of "sending off sufficient", it would have amounted to an admission that the officials had been too hasty and that the player had been harshly treated. No such message has been sent to the sporting world. It was Smith's job to ensure Shaw's availability for this weekend's one-off contest with the Wallabies in Brisbane, and that he achieved. However, Shaw has not been formally cleared in respect of his so-called offence.

Grewcock, sent on as a replacement in the 60th minute, was also dealt with by the tribunal. This time, England neither expected, nor argued for, an acquittal. The Bath captain had been cited by the match commissioner, Dennis Wheelahan of Australia, for stamping on the head of Daniel Carter, the New Zealand centre, and, after a hearing lasting more than two hours, he was banned until 31 August. He is therefore the only player in English rugby history to end two tours of New Zealand in disgrace. Grewcock was sent off during the 1998 Dunedin Test for kicking the opposing hooker in the head.

While the All Blacks in general, and Carter in particular, took a very dim view of Grewcock's latest descent into the crimson mist - "I certainly felt it; my head is pretty sore," said the goal-kicker from Canterbury, a trifle weakly - the big issue surrounded Shaw. Robinson, a sharp pain in English backsides throughout the first Test at Carisbrook, had already been involved in a dust-up with Lawrence Dallaglio and Joe Worsley when he perpetrated one of the more transparently obvious acts of ball-killing at a ruck in his opponents' half. Shaw pushed a knee, almost apologetically, into his back to "let him know he was there", as Woodward put it. Robinson admitted afterwards he had felt nothing, but Dickinson took such a dim view of the incident that he persuaded Williams, the referee, to reach for red.

Shaw was first flabbergasted, then distraught. "There was never any malicious intent on my part," he insisted. "I think the crowd was a factor because it was shown on the replay screen and I heard lots of people shouting 'off, off, off'." Woodward was incandescent, letting fly at the injustice of it all immediately after the game. He slept on it for a couple of hours, then accompanied his player to the tribunal - held, pointedly enough, in the All Blacks' hotel, with triumphant silver-ferned types hanging around the lobby. Following the hearing, the coach resisted what must have been an overwhelming temptation to tear into the officials anew. "I really don't need to get off-side with referees and touch-judges right now," he said, wrestling with his self-control.

In all probability, England would not have beaten the All Blacks on Saturday, even had Shaw been permitted to remain on the pitch past the 11th minute. The New Zealanders, quite brilliant in attack once they had reacquainted themselves with the mix of dynamism and precision that had earned them their spectacular victory in Dunedin seven days previously, were simply too hot for the ailing world champions, beset as they were by injuries and fatigue.

On the one hand, the likes of Mils Muliaina and the astonishing Joe Rokocoko, who created the only try of the first half for Carter before scoring three himself after the interval, were out of the tourists' range. On the other, England were in bits. Stuart Abbott and Mike Tindall, the first-choice centres, failed to go the distance, as did the flanker Richard Hill and the prop Trevor Woodman, although the latter was forced back on when his replacement, Matt Stevens, broke down with a severe knee injury. Stevens and Abbott are definitely out of thecontest with the Wallabies in Brisbane; the chances of the other three are rated significantly less than 50-50.

Yet while Shaw was on the field, the All Black forwards were given a thorough seeing-too at scrum, ruck and maul. There was also a revival of the English line-out, now managed by the splendidly committed Steve Borthwick. Across the field, players were stoking the fires: Woodman and Mark Regan, Dallaglio and Worsley, Andy Gomarsall at scrum-half - the Gloucester man produced his finest display at this level, by a distance - and Charlie Hodgson at stand-off, who established his international credentials beyond question.

Dallaglio openly admitted that Shaw's departure ended the game as a meaningful event, and he was right. Yet England manufactured as many scoring opportunities as the All Blacks in an opening half lasting almost 52 minutes and it was only when Rokocoko - "a superstar in the making", in the view of the New Zealand coach Graham Henry - turned up the blowtorch to full blast in the third quarter and set about dismantling England's set-piece defence that the match slipped irrevocably away. When it went, it went quickly. One way or another, it was quite an evening for abrupt disappearances.