Sport Rugby

Sunday 18 August 2019

Neil Francis: 'Biting an international team-mate demonstrates such a lack of human decency'

Wallaroos captain Liz Patu
Wallaroos captain Liz Patu
'To wilfully bite your own national team-mate . . . that demonstrates such a lack of human decency and understanding of what it means to be part of a team'. (stock photo)
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

A recent incident in a women's rugby match brought the game into a new level of disrepute. The game was between Western Australia and the Queensland Reds and Liz Patu, captain of the Reds and also the Australian national side, bit an opponent, Rebecca Clough.

Clough, a second row, was in a legal jackal position to try and poach the ball or pick up a penalty when she had her arm grabbed and bitten by Patu. I don't have to cloak the term in legal speak to call it the 'alleged bite' because it is as clear as day and Patu admitted to it and 'apologised' for it.

Sometimes you would wonder if it is worth condemning the act on the basis that if men can behave like animals on a rugby field well, then why can't women? Gender equality in thuggery! It was a base act. I declare I am old-fashioned, and to witness one woman hurt another woman in that way on a sports field is disappointing.

That is just the start of it, though. Clough and Patu played together for the Wallaroos. There is an unshakeable bond when you represent your country with all members of that team which stays with you until your dotage. When you play against each other for club or province there is an unwritten rule: there might be verbal or physical disagreement in the course of the game but no bad stuff (unless it's Munster v Leinster!).

To wilfully bite your own national team-mate . . . that demonstrates such a lack of human decency and understanding of what it means to be part of a team.

Patu apologised but you can apologise as profusely as you like, it happened, and sinking your teeth into someone's flesh just can't be taken back by words or expressions of remorse.

Worse still, the referee said she could not act because she did not see it but the chorus of disbelief from the crowd when the TV replays appeared in the stadium should have told the official that something serious had just happened.

The travesty continued as the management of the Queensland Reds decided that they would keep their player on the park. What is the message that Patu's continued presence on the field was sending out?

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To cap it all the disciplinary committee, who would have known that the entry-level punishment was a 12-week ban all the way up to a four-year ban, gave Patu just six weeks. Previous good character is just that. When the line is crossed there should be no clemency or extenuating circumstances.

In the aftermath, there was no definitive comment from the national union on Patu's tenure as captain of Australia. The captain is the person who sets example for their team.

What if Clough and Patu were to share a room when the Women's Rugby Championship shifts into gear during the summer? How would that one work? Patu apologised by text to Clough, which in my eyes makes a bad situation even worse - any meaningful apology is done face to face.

Anyway, as I was reading more about Patu, it was interesting as an aside to read an article on a Samoan website noting the fact that five Samoan women were captain of their adopted national team: Fiao'o Fa'amausili (New Zealand), Tiffany Fa'ae'e (USA), Sene Naoupu (Ireland), Patu and, surprisingly, Manu Sina (Samoa). The Samoan diaspora have been rising to the top in their adopted homes.

During the Six Nations, almost one-third of Eddie Jones' England run-on team had Polynesian roots - quite a proliferation.

World Rugby recently tried to work their own unique solution to the Pacific Island 'problem' by completely excluding them from their putative new World League. That league is for robust discussion for another day, although it is incredible to note how literally every country could object to what was being proposed but at the same time vote for it, if every delegate went to Los Angeles with a mandate from their own Union.

I have to applaud the Pacific nations' threat to withdraw their labour from the World Cup this autumn. A World Cup without Fiji, Samoa and Tonga would be seriously diminished - you would wonder if the diaspora would also come out in solidarity to support players from their country of birth? Would they countenance crossing a picket line even though they now represent a different nation?

What about Australia or New Zealand, who are top-heavy with islander representation? Where do they stand? I hope players like Jonny Sexton, Owen Farrell and Kieran Read will back up their statements of concern with affirmative action. Sorry lads, we are not playing in this mess of a competition under any circumstances.

I might have reservations about rugby tourists playing for countries where they have no connection but shutting them out will effectively shut them down.

A show of unified strength is called for here to let the clowns know that they can't sell the game away. That message sealed with the ultimate World Rugby soundbite, 'with Player welfare our foremost priority'.

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