Professionalism encourages cheats to chance it
August 19, 2009
Former Quins boss Dean Richards is set for a lengthy spell out of the game © Getty Images
Dean Richards and Steph Brennan must be devastated. They have been exposed as cheats and have both paid the ultimate sacrifice.
One moment they were riding high at the top of their respective professions - Brennan was rated so highly he had left Harlequins for his dream job as England team physio and Richards was being touted as a possible future England coach - the next they are unemployed and unemployable in rugby for the foreseeable future.
They cannot claim they were not doing anything wrong - the facts of the case are now out in the open and both have admitted their guilt - but they both know the particular crime they are being punished for is widespread in the game, so common that they were blasé to the point of stupidity.
I spoke to one coach last week who has been around the English Premiership for some seasons and has also worked for one of the Welsh regions. 'I've done it, we've all done it,' he said matter of factly. 'It's commonplace; if you want to rest a prop for 20 minutes you replace him and then nick his eyebrow or his mouth so that he can go back on for the final surge - some coaches will do it just in case they might need a player later.'
A former England forward also confirmed to me that he had been 'nicked' on a number of occasions. He did not elaborate on whether it had ever happened in an international match.
Dick Best, the former England coach, first flagged this up eight years ago so it is nothing new but there is no question that it has become more and more prevalent. Professionalism was always going to erode the 'spirit of the game' - we now know that rugby coaches, just like many other professional coaches, will go to any lengths to give themselves the best chance of winning.
This particular practice will now disappear - coaches are running scared after the draconian penalties handed down to Richards and Brennan - but it highlights the need for an independent medical officer at all top level matches.
Policing the replacement of players is a very difficult area - everybody is scared of refusing the right to replace a player in case he turns out to be seriously injured even though it is not obvious - but there are hundreds of examples of less spectacular abuses of the laws.
Take the first Test between the Lions and the Springboks in June. The Lions (and Phil Vickery in particular) had been devastated by the Springbok pack in the first half but had fought back to within touching distance with five minutes to go.
It was now South Africa in disarray and without their talismanic captain, John Smit who had been replaced because they thought the job was done, there was a real chance the Lions would steal the match against all the odds.
Suddenly, down went Deon Carstens, his replacement, clutching his shoulder. Under the special laws relating to props Smit was ushered back on to the field, The Boks regained some composure and just held on.
After the match I was assured by former coach, Ian McIntosh, that Carstens was badly hurt but, miraculously, he had recovered sufficiently to take his place on the bench for the second Test a week later.
It happens all the time and the IRB must now take action. They either have to go back to the days when a player could not be replaced because of injury until the appointed medical officer certified he could not continue - which was why I spent five minutes at scrum-half against the All Blacks in 1971 before Chico Hopkins was allowed on to replace Gareth Edwards - or go for rolling replacements because that is what the coaches are trying their utmost to engineer.
I find it difficult to feel sorry for a couple of cheats but I do feel sympathy for Richards and Brennan. If they were completely out of kilter with their peers I would have no problems with the severity of the sentences but this is endemic in the game and should be seen in that light.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and a regular contributor to Scrum.com