Sport Rugby

Thursday 26 April 2018

First thing monday: Justice only fair when it's totally transparent

David Kelly

David Kelly

Without parochialism, sport would be nothing. There would be no All-Ireland championships, no Six Nations, no World Cups, no passion. No point.

By its very nature, the parochial breeds the hypocrisy of the devoted follower; there is no logic when the Leitrim hurling fan or the Athlone Town devotee or the Seapoint RFC aficionado assess affairs that directly impact upon their beloved bailiwick.

Supporters of teams of any hue need to be selfish, and those of us who are hypocrites are the most selfish of all. And the most parochial.

A prime example was the egregious manner many in this country reacted to Thierry Henry last November, or any number of Kerry supporters' perpetual whinges when their players are brought to book for indiscipline. The list is endless.

We shouldn't rush to judgment, but it is an Irish character trait, firmly embedded in our psyche. Within the narrow confines of Irish rugby, the tenor of debate is no different -- providing the debate is allowed to happen at all, and even then upon a platform devoid of excessive parochialism.

The case of Sean O'Brien last week invites such a debate, but within Irish rugby there is a manifest reluctance to address the reasons behind the player's entrance into the dock in the first place, quite aside from the inherent flaws in the disciplinary process that ultimately cleared him, or the stated reasoning for the subsequent acquittal.

Instead there is a deafening silence, aside from the huge sighs of relief emanating from the player, his family, his work colleagues and supporters of his Leinster and Ireland teams.


All of which is sweetness and pie. And yes, O'Brien is a lovely chap, a worthy contributor to provincial and international rugby, devoted to Carlow rugby in his guise as a nascent coach.

But it is still a concern that there has been hardly any reaction to the decision, notwithstanding the fact that the rugby season has yet to catch fire in a meaningful fashion.

Where was all the accompanying thunderous cacophony of debate and bluster present when the entirely separate but not utterly dissimilar cases of Shane Jennings and Alan Quinlan, a season and two seasons ago respectively, were then being debated?

Or was it entirely coincidental that those two cases involved Irish players who were found guilty of offences?

Sure, there was a debate back then but much of it was ill-judged and wholly intemperate. I still have a sample of some of the messages aimed at Quinlan by those socially excluded types who text radio programmes or type illiterately on internet forums behind a cloak of anonymity; thankfully withdrawn, their filth and venom were astounding examples of parochial intolerance.

Yet those on the opposite sides of the debate were themselves guilty of a similar level of ignorance, unwisely attempting to deploy Quinlan's affability as a mitigating factor, not to mention the cloying sentimentality that sought innocence because of that summer's imminent Lions tour.

The parochialism in this instant was not provincial, but national. Leo Cullen, Quinlan's victim, led the unseemly charge into omerta; even as his eyelid cavorted somewhere around his midriff, his argument mocked everyone's intelligence.

In that same press conference after that Heineken Cup semi-final, a Leinster official was clearly heard telling a player not to mention the incident.

The Leinster management and former Irish internationals of repute maintained this shoddy farrago until Quinlan's swingeing punishment was handed down; mercifully, the player's own heartfelt apology exposed the rest of his colleagues' unseemly behaviour.

Leinster themselves discovered what it was like to be on the end of the world governing body's (IRB) growing impatience with reckless eye contact when Jennings was banned for three months last season.

Then, Leinster bleated about the fact that Jennings "has an impeccable record and a strong leadership role within the squad", whatever relevance that has to one's innocence or guilt, and they railed against the process to the last inch.

Last week, Leinster's silence after their latest brush with authority was sad, although not entirely unpredictable.

O'Brien's innocence has indeed been proved beyond doubt, but it would have been instructive were either player or coach to acknowledge that they shouldn't have been before the beaks in the first case.

One hopes that, at the very least, O'Brien has been served with a very stern and instructive lecture on the potential harm that could be caused to his career, because the IRB's clampdown on incidents of this kind shows no signs of abating.

Personal responsibility is key. Collective conscientiousness would be nice to observe also.


Beyond the corridors of Leinster rugby, it would have been pleasing had someone attempted to address the appalling anomaly in the Magners League which presently sees citings dealt with by a committee from the Union in which the match that led to a citing was played.

That remains in stark contrast to the Heineken Cup, where cases are dealt with by a neutral panel, a state of affairs which forcibly ejects any possible perception of parochialism.

Perception is key but currently, guilty or innocent, Irish or Welsh -- remember the bleating when the Welsh RFU exonerated Rhys Thomas after he nearly decapitated Shane Horgan last season? -- the Magners League disciplinary system leaves a nasty smell hanging in the air.

Were Thomas Irish, his innocence would have been fastidiously sought with as much relish as those in this jurisdiction who argued his guilt. So, in the circumstances, it is a skewed perception of justice being served.

Justice needs to be delivered to eyes untainted by such perceptions. Hence the utter urgency of an independent disciplinary panel now, not next season as the league panjandrums have declared.

In fact, if the IRB are indeed so unrelenting in the consistent application of their laws globally, they should demand that the Magners League introduce a disciplinary system that invites respect, not suspicion. Otherwise, they should directly intervene.

The IRB attest that it is possible to be guilty of this offence even "without any real force or intent and causing no injury". The IRFU's panel "was satisfied that there had been no deliberate contact with the eye area, no injury whatsoever sustained and no player reaction was observed".

Many readers out there will agree with the verdict, many more will disagree.

It is always thus when justice is done. The problem which the Magners League has is the manner in which justice is seen to be done.

The IRFU were clearly satisfied with their verdict but it would have been a little more pleasing had their deliberations been publicised and advanced with a little more clarity and depth, as is the case with verdicts in other competitions.

But then, theirs was a court not of their making. Instead, it remains an enduring anachronism of a competition which still struggles to engage with the wider public. Little wonder, when one of its most vital components owes its allegiance to a bygone age.

Irish Independent

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