Monday 19 August 2019

Unlike Hartley, new sanctions for high hits miss their target

England captain Dylan Hartley was sent off while playing for Northampton for his high tackle on Leinster’s Sean O’Brien. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
England captain Dylan Hartley was sent off while playing for Northampton for his high tackle on Leinster’s Sean O’Brien. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

There was an item on the radio last week lamenting that things ain't what they used to be. Basically it was about shrinkage. And we could identify with that, for we had just come from the media day in Kingspan Stadium where the goodies that went with the coffee included the iconic Wagon Wheels. If you haven't indulged lately, then don't, for they have been reinvented: the millennial wheels wouldn't roll out a pram, never mind a wagon.

Not everything that has changed has been for the worse however. Rugby, for example, is an altogether more honest pursuit than it was as recently as the mid '90s, and almost unrecognisable from the nakedly violent pastime that existed in the '70s and '80s. One of the great falsisms in rugby back then was that the head was sacrosanct - in that you would sooner kick your granny, than an opponent in the head. Stamping on heads wasn't routine, but it was certainly common.

It has changed because society wanted it to change, and that shift has materialised - at the top level - through a system of monitoring in keeping with the technological age. There are so many cameras and so many angles that the only area uncovered is the bubble above a player's head articulating his thoughts. In the absence of that, we ascribe intent as we see fit.

The technology has been the easy bit: pick the best locations, get the top-of-the-range equipment, and off you go. Dealing with what the cameras show us however is less straightforward. That relies on human judgement. And once humans get involved then their self-interest is only one step behind.

Coincidentally, nothing illustrates that better than picking the Lions. We are already knee-deep, and will be at every turn through the rest of the domestic and international season, nominating prospective runners and riders for the tour to New Zealand next summer.

In an exercise everyone claims to be about assembling the best team from the four home nations, objectivity is first out the window. Then we stuff our squad with as many of our own players as we think remotely feasible. Thereafter we fill in the gaps with English, Welsh and Scots.

Next we laugh our asses off at the ludicrously biased selections that our colleagues come up with across the water. Like the Five-Ringed Circus, we indulge ourselves every four years.

Because it's an exercise in fantasy it doesn't matter a whole lot. But taking personal bias to the table when dealing with safety is a different issue.

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It is scarcely conceivable, for example, that if Dylan Hartley was from rugby's third world, instead of England via New Zealand, he would be free to play in the Six Nations. Equally it's unthinkable that it would have excited so many natives on our island if his victim had not been Irish.

Because he was the England captain he was able to benefit from being first world. Moreover, he had the weight of high-profile rugby heads behind him: (English) RFU chairman Ian Ritchie was first out of the traps to say the hooker was really Mother Teresa, and should be allowed to continue his good work through the Six Nations and beyond; then came Sir Clive Woodward with a remarkable column imputing detailed and good-natured intent to Hartley's swinging arm.

Sure enough, Hartley picked up a six-week ban, and will be free to ride the range in time for the Championship. Evidently, his stellar season with England, where he managed not to knock anyone's head off, mitigated the sentence, but it's unclear how all of this works. For example, can you go postal for a number of years, then be good for 12 months, and push your past so far behind you that it doesn't count?

It would be good if World Rugby could shed some light on this, but they are so busy running around in circles they are looking like the Keystone Cops. The louder they shout about player welfare being top of their agenda the greater clarity we get on incidents injurious to player welfare. In the week of the Ireland versus New Zealand game they came out with another 'mind yisser heads' press release.

Their Match Officials Selection Committee chairman, Anthony Buchanan, said: "By taking this strong approach, we are saying to players that tackling an opponent above the shoulder line will not go unpunished."

Eh, it will Anto. Check out the evidence from that New Zealand game. With beautiful synchronicity they then came out, just as Hartley was in the eye of the storm, with new, increased sanctions for those guilty of high hits. Six weeks for Hartley's hit on O'Brien strikes us - excuse the pun - as reasonable for a first-time offender in an age where, according to those who run the game, player welfare is paramount. For a recidivist who, by February, will have missed the guts of two seasons due to bans, it's hard to fathom.

Like the Wagon Wheel, it's light and misses the target. And we fear they will roll on and on, getting it wrong.

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