On Sunday I watched England’s first win in Dublin since 2003 (and only their third over Ireland in that time) from the comfort of my sofa. It certainly wasn’t a pretty game, and unlike the similarly ugly fare on offer in Paris the day before, there wasn’t even a solitary try to cheer. Two penalty goals for Ireland against four by England, the lowest scoring game in 6 Nations history, and the first tryless encounter between these sides since 1984. However, it was an absorbing game, with some flashes of skill from both sides and especially from the adventurous Keith Earls, but mainly a story of guts, commitment, physical intensity and solid tactical kicking in poor conditions. As often in these games, the side making the fewer mistakes was the winner.
Now, I’m a passionate and ‘involved’ supporter and work on the principle that even if I’m not actually at the game, the players might hear my words of encouragement if I can just make them loud enough! I also use the opportunity to give the referee the benefit of my expertise at similar volume – something I would never do at my local club, for example – safe in the knowledge that I’m essentially talking to myself. Sunday’s referee, M. Garcès of France, must have had seriously heated ears at one particular point, when he failed to deal with the following incident which occurred right under his nose.
I saw the stamp by Healy at normal speed, and when the whistle went immediately afterwards, assumed that M. Garcès had too and was about to reverse the penalty against England for collapsing the maul, and show Healy a card for serious foul play. On reviewing the incident in slo-mo, I was sure Healy would be red carded; the ball was already won (indeed Conor Murray had his hands on it) and in any case, the part of Cole’s leg stamped on was nowhere near the ball. In other words, the usual defence of over-vigorous but legitimate rucking couldn’t apply, and the offence could only be judged as a deliberate attempt to injure an opponent. As an aside, the replay also showed that after the ball had left the ruck, Peter O’Mahony trampled on Cole as he lay on the floor – this too is in contravention of the Laws.
However, after calming down the fighting players and pulling the captains aside and appealing for ‘discipline’, M. Garcès made no reference to the stamping and carried on with the penalty against England. To say I was flabbergasted sells my reaction rather short. I realised that Healy would be cited (this has indeed happened), but this option now seems to be the default for referees and we risk the game becoming ever more like 13-a-side, where even serious acts of foul play go unpunished on the pitch and are dealt with by the ‘on report’ system instead. And far from eradicate foul play, my belief is that this laxity encourages it.
Incidents of players being ‘targeted’ for special treatment seem to be on the increase (or maybe with the prevalence of cameras we just see more of them), and clearly this sort of thuggish behaviour needs to be cleaned out of the game for a number of good reasons.
How, for example, should I explain to my U8 players that they mustn’t indulge in foul play when they see international players getting away with just that?
But the citing process alone isn’t enough, and it’s time that a player’s on-field misdeeds had serious on-field consequences. In short, Healy should have been red-carded leaving his team a player short for the rest of the game, and THEN hauled before a disciplinary panel to receive a lengthy ban.
The effect of a sending off is two-fold: it harms the team, leaving 14 men to do the work of 15 – and any player with an ounce of integrity would feel shame at leaving his colleagues in the lurch; and secondly, the reaction of team-mates and management after the game would be of the kind that tends to increase this sense of shame. So players who want to dish it out the way Healy did on Sunday must be made to feel they have let their team down, by events on the pitch as well as by the displeasure of their team-mates. Only in this way will players be made to think before they stamp, gouge or punch players in an attempt to injure or incapacitate. Citing alone, like the on-report system in 13-a-side, allows the ref to abdicate responsibility and thereby avoid accusations of influencing the game – and for that reason, refs need to be encouraged and empowered to take a stand on foul play before someone gets seriously hurt.