Peter Bills: Is it OK to lash out in rugby?

Sunday 23 March 2014 04:05

Whether Julian White wishes to flatten opponents with the pugilistic skills of Mike Tyson, is no real concern of yours or mine.

The Leicester and England tight head prop has much ‘previous’ in this regard. His list of offences goes back many years, but no more than par for the course, his Leicester apologists would doubtless argue. Whether punching his fellow England prop Andrew Sheridan is likely to improve collective morale in Martin Johnson’s squad or incline the British & Irish Lions selectors to his inclusion in their June tour of South Africa, frankly seems doubtful.

But the point at issue here concerns none of those things. What I find absolutely bewildering is that a punch thrown in one country of the rugby playing world is not the same as a punch thrown in another.

White’s indiscretion earned him a red card at Welford Road against Sale last Saturday. Given that the last time he was up before the beak for a similar offence he copped a five-week suspension, it seems very likely that Leicester will have to pursue their hunt for honours in the Guinness Premiership and Heineken Cup without the redoubtable scrummager that White certainly is.

But I ask this. In a sport where the rules are supposed to be the same the world over (ELVs of recent times excepted), why is it that you can punch in one country and see red but do the same in another and just get a yellow?

In the Western Force v Queensland Reds Super 14 match in Perth at the weekend, a Reds forward threw a fist at the face of an opponent. It was clearly seen and acted upon by the referee. But what the match official then said revealed the chasm in the game in the punishments meted out to players for the same offences.

“Punching is not allowed” said the southern hemisphere official. “Yellow card.”

So 10 minutes later, the culprit was back on the field. There was no such leniency for White, from England referee Wayne Barnes, at Leicester.

It seems to me that this crass lack of uniformity in sentencing risks making the game look stupid. Either punching is or is not allowed. If it isn’t, what is the sanction, red, or yellow? Or have we arrived at a scenario where referees are free to make their own interpretation? If so, we may be into dangerous waters.

There was more than a hint from Leicester after Saturday’s match that White had been provoked. If he was, and if the referee missed that, is that not sufficient mitigation that ought to lead to a yellow, not red card? Or is it standard practice to wave red for an offence like punching?

I’m the first to accept that referees require some flexibility in their decision making. But it would still surely give the game worldwide greater credibility if a standard punishment were meted out to those guilty of certain offences, like punching, for example.

The stirring work put into their defensive rearguard by Harlequins at Bath last Saturday, will have been studied closely by Leinster, ‘Quins’ Heineken Cup quarter finalists this Sunday at The Stoop.

From the way Dean Richards’ men bottled up the Bath side and used the rush defence, the outside in defensive attack, to frustrate and bewilder the Bath threequarters, I suspect that Brian O’Driscoll and Co. will be concerned at their chances of evading this smothering blanket of a rearguard.

The chances of breaking out of this stranglehold are restricted by the fact that potentially one of the best counter weapons, the miss-pass, floated over the top of the outside centre coming from out to in, is a perilous act. Sure, it can expose the aggressive defence by releasing a wide player coming onto the ball at pace and finding unexpected amounts of space into which he can run.

The trouble is, the floated pass is also a potentially juicy morsel upon which opposition defenders will feast their eyes. If it’s too obvious, too flat and too slow, it can be easily intercepted with cataclysmic consequences for the attacking side.

You just sense that Harlequins have a critical momentum to their stride at this time. And if they do prevail, how much of that would be down to the fact that they refused to give up home ground advantage for financial reasons alone of moving the match to Twickenham?

Under Richards, the ‘Quins are a changed club. Leinster will be the first to concede that, Grand Slam glory notwithstanding, this weekend’s challenge is a mighty one indeed.

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