Saturday 17 March 2018

George Hook: Too high a price

IRB must stand firm in face of protests and clamp down on spear-tackles before a player gets killed

George Hook

George Hook

TWO announcements this week regarding Ireland hit the headlines.

Declan Kidney’s team hardly raised an eyebrow, as it followed the pattern set during his time in office.

There was just the one change, as Keith Earls came back in to the team following his enforced absence against Wales. The coach ignored the evidence of a passive defence, a malfunctioning backrow and a predictable attacking game.

Meanwhile, our opponents – despite a victory over Italy – made four changes in the pack in the interests of creating an even tougher unit.

The other news – that Stephen Ferris was deemed innocent by the citing committee – fuelled Irish paranoia that once again ‘we wuz robbed’.


The Irish position on tackles could be summed up in the view that red cards are correct for the dastardly foreigners, but our guys are as clean as the driven snow.

Remember our reaction to the tackle on Brian O’Driscoll in Christchurch, when recalling our ambassador seemed a possibility? The International Rugby Board, for the second time, has failed to adequately support its referees.

Alain Rolland had a half-hearted approval of his decision to red-card Sam Warburton in the World Cup semi-final, and now Wayne Barnes stands indicted of making an error that cost Ireland the game.

Those that stood in judgment of the referee have watched the video of the incident dozens of times, while Barnes had to make a brave decision in the blink of an eye.

The real danger is that someone is going to die on the rugby pitch because of a failure to adequately police dangerous elements of the game. There are 32 young Irish men in wheelchairs because of catastrophic injuries sustained playing the game. All were accidental and not as the result of foul play.

Yet as the game becomes more dangerous, and the collisions more horrific, there is a lessening of the standard of care for the players.

The language to describe dangerous elements of the game is deliberately softened in order not to frighten parents. Thus the ‘tackle’ by Bradley Davies on Donnacha Ryan – which might have earned him an appearance before a judge had it been perpetrated on the streets of Cardiff – merits a seven-week suspension for a ‘tip-tackle.’

Notice the use of words: tip, brings up images of the practice game where tackling is disallowed rather than the previous designation of ‘spear-tackle.’ Spearing properly described the act of driving a player head-first into the ground.

Similarly, when players raked the helpless torsos of opponents on the ground, instead of calling it for what it was, it was described as a ‘shoeing’ or worse still ‘a touch of the slipper.’ Hardly likely to upset the folks over their toast and marmalade! The position of former internationals on the issue is interesting.

Both Alan Quinlan and Frankie Sheahan in the immediate aftermath pronounced that Ferris had no case to answer. The former hooker’s position has not changed since the Warburton incident, in suggesting that the scale of the injury be the deciding factor on guilt.

It is astonishing that professional players would not be in the vanguard of trying to make the game safer. One wonders as rugby gladiators if they would not prefer a return to the Coliseum, and the merits of the tackle be decided by the outstretched thumbs of the baying crowd.

The answer to the problem is simple. It’s not, as the Irish media attempted to portray this week, a question of innocent or guilty. Ferris was guilty of carelessness by tackling with an arm under the leg and behind the thigh – which is likely to bring the tackler above the horizontal and merit a penalty.

If it were a red-card offence without appeal and a minimum sentence, the problem would cease and the rugby field would be a safer place.

The law is not for the highly paid participants of the professional game but for the protection of the tens of thousands that play the game for fun.

Increasingly, the IRB is creating a game that cannot be played by ordinary people and it risks descending into the television spectacular that is American Football, where the overwhelming bulk of its adherents are involved on a couch with beer and crisps.

As Ireland stood under the crossbar awaiting the conversion of the George North try, it is inconceivable that Paul O’Connell did not use the time-honoured phrase, ‘no pennos, lads’. But Ireland did not keep their shape and discipline, and deservedly lost.

This weekend we go to Paris to play in a sport that makes a huge demand on the courage, character and commitment of outstanding young men.

If the price of victory is that their old age is marred by serious injury, then I am happy to lose.

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