Time for rugby punishments to fit the crimes

Disciplinary system is a shambles, but the solution could be simple. Let the referees take full control, says Chris Hewett
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There has to be something either seriously fishy or fundamentally flawed about a disciplinary system that permits an alleged miscreant to be interrogated, judged and sentenced by a close friend and club-mate with whom he has just spent a summer holiday in Hawaii. Not even the Mafia at their most influential managed to pull that sort of stunt. The spectacle of Martin Johnson playing the magistrate to Austin Healey's defendant two days ago must have set Lord Denning spinning in his ermine-lined grave.

Johnson may well be the least corruptible figure in rugby, and there is no suggestion that he showed Healey any favours when the Leicester scrum-half's journalistic transgressions – or, rather, those of his ghost-writer – were considered by a three-man Lions tribunal at a hotel airport near Dublin. All the same, the England and Lions captain was put in an awkward position. As one of the more acerbic observers of the red rose scene put it this week: "Johnson and Healey toured Australia together in June and shared a grass skirt and cocktails in July. Now, in September, one of them is fining the other. Can't be right, can it?"

It should, however, be pointed out that this week's shenanigans amounted to the least of rugby's current problems. The state of oval ball jurisprudence is at an all-time low – some achievement, given the situation in 1999, when the organisers of the World Cup gave their blessing to a disciplinary system that began as an affront to natural justice and grew less tenable as the tournament progressed. Four recent incidents tell a sorry tale.

In April, the Springbok prop Cobus Visagie won his appeal against a two-year ban for steroid abuse, despite the strong reservations of Dr Demitri Constantinou, a member of the three-man panel appointed to hear the case. Visagie had tested positive for traces of nandrolone, but was cleared to resume playing when Jannie Lubbe, the chairman of the panel, and Chris Heunis decided that the testing procedures had not been carried out in "strict compliance" with the International Olympic Committee's anti-doping code.

In July, the Lions were infuriated by the refusal of a citing officer from New Zealand, David Gray, to instigate proceedings against the Wallaby centre Nathan Grey, who poleaxed the tourists' best player, Richard Hill, with a comprehensively illegal tackle and put him out of the remainder of the Test series. The incident reduced an already discredited citing system to the status of a profoundly unfunny joke.

In August, the Gloucester prop Trevor Woodman was one of two players sent off during the West Country club's pre-season "friendly" against Béziers in south-west France – a tempestuously violent affair that might have inspired a new film by Tarantino. Philippe Saint-André, the Gloucester coach, described the match as "a big, big fight"; at one point, a group of security guards joined the players in throwing punches. When Woodman appeared before a Rugby Football Union disciplinary panel, however, he was cleared. "There was no evidence laid before the panel that he had committed an offence contrary to the laws of the game," said the RFU in a statement.

Last Saturday, Gloucester's Junior Paramore was sent to the sin-bin for felling Andrew Blowers with a high tackle during the Premiership match with Northampton at Kingsholm. Minutes previously, the Northampton full-back Nick Beal had "dropped" Dimitri Yachvili with a high tackle, and a far more public high tackle at that. Beal escaped punishment. While Northampton officials branded Paramore a "disgrace", Gloucester officials cried "inconsistency" and declined even to criticise the Samoan No 8, let alone discipline him. Not for the first time and certainly not for the last, rugby's good name had been rucked into oblivion.

Let us be fair to the administrators of the union code (oh go on, just this once) and accept that drugs issues are hopelessly complex and fraught with the potential for subsequent legal action. Athletics could tell rugby a great deal about the snake-pits and elephant-traps of anti-doping campaigns, and one of the things it would stress is the need for a common approach to the problem. Unfortunately, South African testing procedures are at odds with those adopted by the International Rugby Board. Given the discrepancies, Visagie was never likely to serve his ban.

The remaining incidents were perfectly straightforward, though, and the failure of the prevailing system to deal effectively with them reveals it for what it is: obsolete. Independent citing officers are more trouble than they are worth: if Grey's assault on Hill, captured in its gory detail from half a dozen different camera angles, can go unpunished, all bets are off. Far better to hand the match video to the referee and allow him to study it over a period of, say, 48 hours. If there is action to be taken, let him take it. After all, he will have a better idea than anyone as to what the hell went on out there on the pitch.

Had the excellent Jonathan Kaplan, who controlled the Melbourne Test between the Wallabies and the Lions, been charged with viewing the footage of his own match, he would unhesitatingly have reported Grey. Had the Béziers-Gloucester referee been handed a tape of his game – yes, even friendlies are filmed these days, if only for coaching purposes – he would surely have provided the evidence the RFU disciplinarians conveniently claimed they were lacking. By all accounts, there was no shortage of pugilistic activity from which to choose.

Rugby must grow up and accept what all the best referees know it to be: an inherently violent sport, and one in which the degree of violence finds its own level, depending on a variety of circumstances. The really good officials – the Kaplans, the Joël Dumés, the Tony Spreadburys, the Chris Whites – prefer to let the odd piece of nonsense go, and concentrate on taking decisive action against excesses that are out of context with the particular game they are controlling. Why not take things a stage further and allow them to review their own performances in front of the video, pick up on what they may have missed and, if necessary, take action?

At the moment, they are not permitted to referee with the remotest instinctive freedom. The presence of an assessor at every major professional match – and a fair few semi-professional ones, too – means that they must play it by the book, or lose their livelihoods. And what a book it is that they contending with: the current laws, as set out by the IRB in its most recent publication, run from page 13 to page 155. Until rugby rids itself of its obsession with assessment and allows referees to make the odd error, 30 penalties a match will continue to be the norm.

Spreadbury refereed last weekend's game at Kingsholm, and did it beautifully for the most part. He dealt with Beal as he has dealt with thousands of other transgressors down the years – a smile, a wag of the finger and a word in the ear, along the lines of: "Don't be so bloody daft". So why did Paramore get the yellow card treatment? Because he was a forward? Because he had a reputation for dishing out the physical? Because he made the mistake of committing his foul in front of both the Northampton bench, from which replacements and officials rose as one to demand his expulsion? Or because the incident happened within 30 feet of Spreadbury's assessor?

Rugby has a problem with its disciplinary machinery, and at the moment, it has not the slightest idea how to address it. As the American lawyer Ellen Morphonios said a quarter of a century ago: "There is no justice in the law".