Sunday 20 August 2017

Sinead Kissane: My greatest wish for 2017 would be to see rugby kick off real reforms

New Zealand’s Malakai Fekitoa receives a yellow card for his tackle on Simon Zebo last November. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
New Zealand’s Malakai Fekitoa receives a yellow card for his tackle on Simon Zebo last November. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

You won't have seen them on any of the literary end-of-year award lists but some of the most breathtaking reads of the past year could be found in the statements explaining the outcome of disciplinary hearings for acts of dangerous and foul play. Some of the statements boasted what any novella would love to have: mystery, the capacity to astound, and, best of all, a twist at the end.

When the result of New Zealand centre Malakai Fekitoa's disciplinary hearing for his high tackle on Simon Zebo was revealed last month it was truly mind-boggling.

The disciplinary committee found that Fekitoa "acted recklessly rather than intentionally". If you're uncertain as to how a committee knows for sure that a player "acted recklessly rather than intentionally" you obviously don't know that these disciplinary folk are tethered to every player through a secret link which informs them of the degree of motive behind every act.

Because how else could a committee be independently sure of intent unless they are obviously inside players' minds during games? What supernatural powers they must have.

The twist at the end of these disciplinary statements generally comes in the form of "mitigating factors". For Fekitoa's whopping one-week ban, a week was knocked off because of his "immediate acknowledgement of wrongdoing, his previous clean disciplinary record and his good conduct at the hearing".

Well, isn't it just lovely that there's such forgiveness in our disciplinary process for a game which can be so brutally savage that it can result in incidents like Robbie Henshaw lying in a state of unconsciousness on the pitch after a high tackle from Sam Cane.

The decision by the Concussion Management Review Group, set up by Premiership Rugby and the RFU, not to punish Northampton for allowing George North to return to the pitch after being pole-axed after a tackle left you in no doubt of the divide between talk and actions when it comes to player welfare in some places.

This incident underlined why all tournaments should have independent doctors for (HIAs)head injury assessments. Sure, it will come at a cost - but what's the ultimate cost here?

For 2017, the disciplining and officiating of rugby needs to catch up with the way rugby is actually played. There seems to be an apologist's strain running through the outcome of some hearings as if committees will take any hook (like good behaviour at a hearing) in order to excuse giving a player the punishment his act truly warrants.

One spectacular episode were the reasons given by the Six Nations for not taking disciplinary action against England's Joe Marler for calling Wales' Samson Lee a "gypsy boy" which included the excuse that the "comment was one made in the heat of the moment". The heat of the moment? Because, clearly, Test rugby generally has as much intensity as a vinyasa yoga class. The intervention of World Rugby saw Marler given a two-game ban and a fine but Six Nations should not need big brother to jump in.

Scrutiny

The tackle will rightly be under scrutiny like never before in the New Year. From January 3, World Rugby will introduce "minimum on-field sanctions for reckless and accidental contact with the head, effectively lowering the acceptable height of the tackle".

But this still depends on how it will be officiated. The role match officials have is becoming so influential that the list of referees has become as important as team line-ups for a game. And yet there are only two full-time referees in the Pro12 - Nigel Owens and Ben Whitehouse (both WRU).

In Connacht's Champions Cup win over Wasps the decision by stand-in ref Mathieu Reynal (who replaced injured ref Jerome Garces) to allow Connacht kick to touch which resulted in the try and winning conversion was an embarrassment for tournament organisers.

Imagine if it was Connacht who lost the game as a result of an assistant ref not knowing the rules? The placards with 'Sportsground-lit Robbery' would be done up as fast as the march to Neuchatel in Switzerland to protest at their HQ. National unions, the major stakeholders of the European game, have to increase the number and quality of full-time match officials from refs to TMOs.

There will be some reform in 2017 with the Six Nations trialling the bonus-point system. Some believe it will bring the tournament into line with all other club competitions and The Rugby Championship. But the Six Nations isn't like any other tournament because there is no home-and-away format so let's see how this trial transpires.

More change should come with the residency rule with World Rugby reviewing regulations.

France head coach Bernard Laporte has stated he will only select players with a French passport. If it is five years to get a passport then common sense should dictate that the same duration be used for rugby's residency rule. Three years is just a contract. Five years would be a commitment.

There is so much more which needs to be revised in 2017, like ending the neutering of Christmas derbies with watered-down teams (change the schedule) and Champions Cup games only available on TWO pay-per-view channels. And what about ... OK, maybe we'll leave it there, for now.

Here's to a safe, sensible and utterly entertaining New Year of rugby.

Irish Independent

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