Monday 23 September 2019

James Lawton: Football accepts it has problems, does rugby?

Dylan Hartley, the Northampton captain sits on the bench after being sent off during the Aviva Premiership Final between Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints at Twickenham
Dylan Hartley, the Northampton captain sits on the bench after being sent off during the Aviva Premiership Final between Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints at Twickenham
Luis Suarez

No doubt it will take a lot more than a near flawless Champions League final to make us believe that football is near to the rehabilitation of a seriously battered image. However, the world's most popular game is entitled to at least one concession.

It is the acknowledgement that from time to time it does display some kind of awareness of the extent of its own failings, something which its uppity cousin rugby union, not to mention golf, rarely displays too profoundly even in the most wretched of circumstances.

Events at Twickenham in the weekend Premiership final hardly broke the trend.

Can anyone, for example, begin to imagine the furore, the sheer stomach-clenching sense of crisis, that would have enveloped football if a referee and his assistants, having performed their duties with exemplary professionalism, decided they could not risk the gauntlet of abuse, or worse, that would have accompanied them to the after-match presentation?

Rugby had an anarchy problem at Twickenham, created most outrageously by the serial offender Dylan Hartley and augmented, whatever you thought of Courtney Lawes' escape from punishment for a marginally late and disabling tackle on Tony Flood, by the persistent harassment of officials by Leicester director of rugby Richard Cockerill.

But then you wouldn't have had much of clue on this from the typically airy statement of rugby union's head of discipline, Judge Jeff Blackett.

In a most interesting use of words Judge Blackett summed up the decision to ban Hartley for 11 weeks and wreck his hopes of flying off with the Lions: "We cannot get around the fact that Wayne Barnes [the highly rated referee] was certain that Mr Hartley's comments were directed at him," said the judge.

Also impossible to swerve was the fact that shortly before Hartley accused Barnes of being a "f***ing cheat" he had been directly warned about his language and the tone of his comments.

Judge Blackett added: "Calling a referee a cheat is an attack on his integrity and contrary to the core values of rugby."

The phrase hangs in the air pregnant with the implications loaded into the comment that closed the ESPN television first-half commentary seconds after Hartley had been shown the red card. "This is rugby not football," said the ESPN man, no doubt also fretting about a fresh erosion of rugby's high ground.

Was it "core values" we were hearing of again? Yes, we were, and each time we do so there must be the suspicion that in rugby union there remains in some quarters a blissful ignorance of quite how threatened some of this working morality has become.

In football the outrage over the biting by Liverpool's Luis Suarez of Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic was as fierce as it was legitimate, especially in the light of the fact that it was his second offence. Yet when you review the rap sheet owned by Hartley as he contemplated glory with the Lions in Australia you see a tide of recidivist indiscipline which, had it flowed on to the street rather than the field, might have prompted talk of a custodial sentence.

Of course, down all the years of rugby union's disdain for the mores of football the kind of violent offences committed by Hartley have been routine. Yet, naturally, this didn't prevent Ireland's stalwart hooker Keith Wood saying that the importance of the heavy sentence handed to Hartley was that it would preserve rugby from the kind of indiscipline, and aggression towards officials that so bedevils football.

This relentless assertion of moral superiority would sit better in a game that has shown some serious capacity to heal itself of the most gratuitous violence.

Hartley indeed broke an extremely important regulation at Twickenham but then there were plenty of reasons to ask why on earth he had been given the responsibility of leading the Northampton team into such a heavily charged match. They included convictions for eye-gouging two opponents in a Premiership match, biting Ireland hooker Stephen Ferris in a Six Nations game and, just five months ago, punching Rory Best, the Ulsterman who now takes his place in the Lions squad. How was it possible that a man with such defaced credentials might get to lead England, an honour which was immediately marked by a sin-binning against South Africa last summer?

Football, you have to say, is entitled to ask how a game with such a lofty belief in its own inherent values, which never misses the chance to sneer at the failings of others, could bestow the highest honours on such a relentless offender. Nor could football be accused of being too querulous – in the wake of the latest jibes from rugby – if it speculated on how long it would take one of its leading figures to reinstate himself after the kind of scandal Dean Richards brought to Harlequins four years ago.

As far as rugby union is concerned, Bloodgate is consigned to the remotest history. Richards is lauded for his fine work at Newcastle, which is, of course, hardly surprising in that he was a feted visiting speaker at many clubs when the ink of his three-year suspension, for some of the most outlandish and egregious cheating any form of sport had ever known, was still fresh on the page.

Richards and his many admirers say that he has served his time, however brief it was when set against the scale of his offences, and that this particular slate is clean.

Not too many around Twickenham are prepared to discuss what this says about the enduring and precious core values of rugby, of course, which is just another reason why they should keep their wider judgements entirely to themselves.

Independent News Service

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