Time to assert authority
July 29, 2009
Tom Williams was slapped with a 12-month ban by ERC © Getty Images
Once the IRB have indulged themselves in a little self congratulation - it would have been highly embarrassing if the recommendations by Rugby World Cup Limited (RWCL) for hosting the next two World Cups had not been rubber stamped by the full council - they need to turn their attention to more mundane things, like discipline.
It is high time they asserted their authority and changed a few of their bye-laws because the present procedures have been shown to be at best inadequate and at worst seriously flawed over the past few weeks.
For a game that prides itself on it standards of sportsmanship and fair play it has not been a good month.
The IRB guidelines clearly advocate a recommended minimum sentence of 12 weeks for eye gouging but Burger was given a paltry eight week suspension by Alan Hudson, the Canadian Judicial Officer in charge of the case.
Hudson was confronted by the full might of the South African Rugby Union with the player represented by a top lawyer and it appears that he caved in and came up with a sentence which did not fit the severity of the crime.
There were no mitigating circumstances as everybody saw from the television pictures - Burger actually had a second 'go' at Luke Fitzgerald's face - yet Mr Hudson managed to find four reasons for reducing the sentence. To quote from his judgement:
a) Burger is clearly a fine rugby player with 50 Test caps and many national and international accolades.
b) I have heard of Burger's fine character off the field.
c) Burger's record is quite good for a player of his experience - importantly he has never been disciplined for any offence relating to the face of any player.
d) Burger expressed remorse and conducted himself appropriately.
Gouging is one of the worst crimes in rugby and nobody outside South Africa would have thought it unfair if he had got a six month ban. Because it was a first offence 12 weeks was probably right anything less is totally unacceptable.
The IRB clearly believe justice has not been done because they are currently reviewing their own procedures with a view to introducing a clause to allow them to revisit such cases and increase the sentence where they feel the one handed down is inadequate.
If I had been the South African Rugby Union I would have considered that quite a result and would certainly not have quibbled about the Bakkies Botha ban. Instead the management and players chose to back a misplaced protest from the players' union - thereby refusing to accept the verdict of a properly constituted IRB hearing.
SARU now deserve to have the book thrown at them for contempt - otherwise anarchy is just around the corner.
There is also a good case for the IRB bringing a charge of disrepute against Harlequins because ERC have made such a hash of their investigation into the Heineken Cup 'Bloodgate' affair.
Tom Williams is guilty of appalling over-acting - the blood was positively foaming from his mouth - and the wink was inexcusable (when will these guys learn that the cameras catch everything?) but nobody in rugby believes he was anything but the fool in this drama. As I understand it the investigators were confronted by a wall of silence and therefore failed to implicate anybody else so, in a petty display of vindictive justice, they have thrown the book at the one person caught red-handed even though they do not believe he acted alone.
I have heard of several cases where players have been asked to nick themselves in the mouth or elsewhere after being replaced so that it can be deemed a 'blood' replacement and they can return to the field if needed and everything points to this being a more sophisticated version of the same scam.
Williams was only on the field for five minutes and was quite clearly just a mule carrying the package. OK so it was impossible to identify the architects of the plot but, surely, it cannot be right to take away Williams' living for a year.
The very fact that ERC have fined the club so heavily shows they do not believe he was the architect of this deception so, surely, a monetary fine by itself is completely inappropriate. Harlequins tried to win the game by cheating so it would seem entirely right that they are banned from the Heineken Cup this coming season.
We all knew professionalism would change the game but everybody expressed the hope that rugby would retain the old amateur, Corinthian values that other sports admire so much.
These cases show we are on the slippery slope - the professional end of the game is compromising the very principles the rugby fraternity claims to hold most dear. The IRB has the ultimate authority and the ultimate responsibility to protect those principles which is why it must not be afraid to use its powers if they are being threatened.