Friday 18 August 2017

Comment: After a week where rugby's violence was under the microscope, Keith Earls' comments were simply mind-boggling

22 October 2016; Keith Earls of Munster speaks to Fraser Brown of Glasgow as he leaves the pitch having been shown a red card during the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
22 October 2016; Keith Earls of Munster speaks to Fraser Brown of Glasgow as he leaves the pitch having been shown a red card during the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 1 Round 2 match between Munster and Glasgow Warriors at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Will Slattery

Will Slattery

With another memorable autumn campaign having come to an end, it is a perfect time to take stock of Irish rugby.

After a disappointing World Cup quarter-final exit at the hands of Argentina - in a game where Ireland were shorn of five nailed-on star starters - Joe Schmidt vowed that strength in depth would never be the issue that scuppers his side's chances in the future.

Read more: 'I was very tempted to put up my hand and take Joe Schmidt to task': Paul Kimmage on the 'forgotten' issue after Ireland's win

One year on, and that edict - like almost everything else that Schmidt puts his mind to - has come to pass, with Ireland enjoying plentiful options in almost every single position except scrum-half.

From the summer on, Ireland have played a more expansive game, married to the defensive and rucking qualities that made them such a difficult side to play against pre-World Cup.

But while Irish rugby is in rude health after taking the scalp of all three southern hemisphere giants in 2016, the world game is in a decidedly more murky territory.

If Ireland's first clash with the All Blacks saw all of rugby's finest selling points on display, the combative return fixture in the Aviva Stadium put a spotlight on one the sport's major issues.

As Brendan Fanning succinctly surmised in yesterday's Sunday Independent, the positive strides made in rugby towards combating concussion are offset somewhat by the failure to clamp down on dangerous tackles.

A number of high hits over the autumn series magnified how grey the area is surrounding what warrants just a penalty, a yellow card or a red card - with the World Rugby dictate on the matter issued halfway through November not helping matters much.

The contest between Ireland and the All Blacks in Dublin produced a deluge of comment pieces, with topics like Irish whinging, whether children should be allowed play rugby, New Zealand arrogance and what constitutes a reckless tackle all getting plenty of coverage.

Amid all the noise emanating from both hemispheres last week, it was easy to miss Keith Earls' comments on dangerous tackles - and they were perhaps the most striking.

The Ireland star didn't talk about the New Zealand game, instead giving interesting quotes to the Irish Independent about Munster's herculean effort in overcoming Glasgow in the Champions Cup the day after burying Anthony Foley.

Read more: Keith Earls: 'It's a pity that it took our head coach to die for us to play the way he wanted us to'

Earls' day ended after just 20 minutes following a tip tackle on Fraser Brown. In the immediate aftermath, he exchanged words with Brown and Glasgow fullback Stuart Hogg as he left the field, seeming to indicate that he felt the hooker had milked the incident to get him sent off.

Such a rash reaction can be explained by the day that was in it, with Earls missing out on the chance to put in a performance worthy of Foley's memory.

But one month later, Earls' view on the matter remains perplexing.

After offering an apology to any young fans who saw him kick a bottle in disgust after he walked off the pitch, Earls launched another attack on Brown.

"I spoke to Fraser Brown on the phone and I felt he could have done a bit more," he said.

"Yes, I did lift his leg but I felt he could have done a bit more to save the impact. The way he went, I thought he was going for it a small bit, to be honest with you.

"I spoke to him and he said he was just trying to protect himself. I felt I was cheated really going off the pitch. They denied me an opportunity to put in a performance for my head coach and the Munster supporters so I kind of lost it a bit coming off the pitch."

This is the incident in question.

 

The phrase 'duty of care' gets used a lot in relation to dangerous tackles; as in, the tackler has a duty to not intentionally injure an opponent.

Earls seems to be suggesting that in this case, Brown had a 'duty' to not get him sent off. There is little to no movement on Brown's part and the suggestion that Earls was 'cheated' by the hooker is mind-boggling.

Earls recklessly lifted the leg, and he shouldn't have been surprised by the consequences.

Interestingly, the judgement issued by the EPCR cited the apology issued by Earls to Brown as one of the mitigating factors that saw his ban halved to just two weeks. Yet here we are, just a month later, and the Ireland star seems to be contradicting that entirely.

Such a ridiculous justification for a dangerous tackle has rightly be picked up on by a number of Scottish fans. Could you imagine the vitriol from Irish supporters, given last week's reaction, if Sam Cane had gone to the New Zealand press saying that since Robbie Henshaw had spun out of a tackle and dipped slightly, he was 'going for it a small bit'?

It would be highly hypocritical to admonish Kiwi pundits and media members for their cavalier attitude towards player safety in the aftermath of the Ireland game without commenting on Earls' remarks last week.

Sam Cane's tackle was dangerous. So was Malakai Fekitoa's and so was Keith Earls'.

But only one of the three gave an interview pinning part of the blame on his opponent.

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