In 1823, William Webb Ellis first picked up the ball in his arms and ran with it. And for the next 156 years forwards have been trying to work out why. - Tasker Watkins VC, LJ.

Friday, September 30, 2011

RWC Part V - Eliota Fuimanao-Sapolu, Nigel Owens and Twitter.

Eliota Fuimanoa-Sapolu is a player with Samoa. They played an absolutely cracking match against South Africa, which the Springboks won, 13-5; as a result, Samoa are now out of the RWC.

Nigel Owens was the ref. On an Assistant Referee's recommendation, and following a warning to both sides to stop face-slapping in the first half, he sent off the Samoan player for a strike to the face of Heinrich Brussow, after Brussow was attempting to stop Williams from holding him off the ball. That was with roughly 8 minutes to go in the game; John Smit was sent to the sin-bin approximately a minute later for a deliberate knock-down.

It was a hard, niggly, but wonderful game. It could have kicked off into an all-out brawl at any stage; that it didn't is a credit to Owens, and his Assistant Referees, Julian Terheege and Wayne Barnes. Owens had a very good game; when, after a game, both sets of fans are complaining he was hard on them, it's usually an indication the ref was fair.

But, afterwards, things got ugly on Twitter. People were saying that if Nigel Owens turned up in Samoa, he was a dead man.

At which stage, Eliota Fuimanoa-Sapolu hit Twitter, and things went pear-shaped in the grand fashion. One can understand being upset; but this went to entirely different levels. He started tweeting seriously aggressive comments about Nigel Owens, including retweeting the threats to cause harm to him if he appeared in Samoa; and including that "IRB is f*cked up arrd need to get new IRB officials and that Welsh ref if i was ay hitman i wud shot dat kient" (into which charming missive I've inserted an asterisk as I try to avoid mindless vulgarity when writing in a public sphere).

It can be seen in all its ghastly glory HERE

This is not the first time Mr. Fuimanoa-Sapolu has covered himself in glory on Twitter; after the Wales-Samoa match, he was claiming that for Samoa to have a shorter turn-around between matches  was: Unfair treatment, like slavery, like the holocaust, like apartheid. F*CK U. However, retweeting threats to cause a referee harm is a new low; and possibly a criminal offence.

What makes this even more astonishing is that not only should Mr. Fuimanoa-Sapolu know better - to be blunt, anyone with three braincells lined up in a row and talking to each other should know better  - but that he is, himself, qualified as a solicitor in New Zealand. The mind boggles.

What this, and other incidents such as the Brian Mujati incident, should show is that it is vital - not desirable, vital - that teams get a handle on social media. However much it may feel like a quiet private conversation, posting something on Facebook or Twitter isn't. It's more like conducting a conversation by megaphone across a crowded square; everyone gets to hear it. And record it. 

The lesson for any team is; get a policy in place about what can, or cannot, be tweeted or put on social media; tell the players; get them to sign up to it; and enforce it. Because otherwise, a team can be put on the sport because of an unbelievably crass comment that should never have been made. 

Whether or not Samoa, or Eliota Fuimanoa-Sapolu will be facing a disciplinary hearing remains to be seen. But the lesson for team management is clear; get your policies and procedures in place, before ever it gets to the stage of running that risk.

And the lesson for players is even more obvious: if in doubt, keep it to yourself, and have some respect for the game, and your own dignity. 

Alternative Dispute Resolution in Sport

On the Wednesday just gone, Sweeney McGann - a firm of solicitors in Limerick, who have just opened a specialist sports law department - hosted a seminar in Limerick on Sports Law for club members. It was well worth it, and there'll hopefully be more to come.

The reason I mention it is that Dr. Jack Anderson of QUB gave a talk at it on Alternative Dispute Resolution - ADR - in sport, with particular reference to the Gaelic Athletic Association's Dispute Resolution Authority (the DRA).

I've mentioned this in the past, in terms of using mediators for disputes and in terms of the new disciplinary system for what's now the Rabo Pro 12 (announced back in March; and no sign of it in September, with the fifth round of games starting this evening). 

However, it did strike me that possibly the best thing to do for background reference is to link up to an article by Jack, which gives a very good background to the origins of the DRA. 

The article is HERE; and I'd certainly recommend people take a look at it. 

Monday, September 26, 2011

RWC Part IV - Todd Clever.

I'm glad to say that, after much digging, I've finally been able to find the decisions from the citings in the RWC.

So, to deal with the one on Todd Clever, the USA flanker. He was cited for a dangerous tackle - a high tackle - on a Russian player. In fairness, there have been worse seen; but, given the direction about any high tackles being serious foul play worthy of a citing, he was always going to be cited.

The decision is HERE.

What I want to deal with in this one is inconsistency. It was His Honour Judge Jeff Blackett heard this case. Now, the learned judge is one of the most experienced people hearing citing cases around, and has done much to develop what nascent system of precedent there is in rugby discipline. However, there's a major inconsistency in this.

A "compelling" feature that meant that Clever received no suspension was that

Aged 28, and having played so many high level matches in a variety of competitions, he is very experienced. He has operated at a high level in a position which is naturally confrontational, but has never been in any trouble before.

Now, I've talked about this before in relation to inconsistency. In Quinlan, the comment was that because Quinlan was "old enough and experienced enough to know better", his experience was an aggravating factor; in Schalk Burger's case, two months later, having 50 caps was a mitigating factor.

However, the real contrast is the learned judge's decision in Paul O'Connell's case. O'Connell, too had never received a red card, was experienced, and played in about as abrasive a position as one gets; he had one suspension only in the course of his rugby-playing career, of two weeks.

However, this was not considered a mitigating factor by the learned judge. Instead, he considered that being an iconic figure warranted a lecture somewhat reminiscent of a prefect wigging a schoolboy who had the cheek to contest an accusation.

It is no good for the image of the game nor indeed for his own reputation and someone of his iconic stature should have exercised much better self control.

The problem, again, is consistency. Either experience is mitigating for everyone, or it's mitigating for no-one. But it is entirely inconsistent, and unfair, to knock time off a suspension for one player on the grounds of experience and then add time on in the case of another player; all the more so when the learned judge so doing is the same person.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Interview on Concussion Liability

On Thursday last, I was interviewed about potential legal liability for concussion by George Hook - one of the main rugby pundits in Ireland - on his drive-time radio show, The Right Hook.

You can listen to it HERE.

Hopefully, it might help move things on on the training front.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

RWC Part II - Courtney Lawes

Courtney Lawes of England has been cited for striking Mario Ledesma with his knee. He has been banned for two matches. You can see the offence in slow-motion in from two different angles here and here (with thanks to Snedds on Gwlad).

Now, it might be somewhat of an understatement to say that I have my own opinions as a rugby supporter about Mr. Lawes' actions here - in the same way that it's somewhat of an understatement that the sea is slightly damp. But I want to put that aside just for the moment and deal with the aspects thrown up by this decision.

Firstly, we still don't have the full decision. Bluntly, that's not good enough. For all that I regularly criticise the ERC here, the ERC is at least developing a coherent, consistent set of decisions. Players, lawyers and judicial officers alike can all look at past decisions, and develop a proper system of precedents. The IRB singularly fails to do the same; it is, in essence, a closed system. That is not good enough at the top of the game

Secondly, the entry level minimum sentences in Regulation 17 are now, in effect, dead. The only reason that Regulation 17 permits to go below those minimum sentence (and at the entry level alone) is in exceptional circumstances. Here, there was a player who denied any wrongdoing, but whose plea of remorse in mitigation was enough to go below the minimum. If a plea of remorse in mitigation, something specifically dealt with in Regulation 17 as being a normal factor to be considered in the sentencing, it to be treated as being an exceptional circumstance, then, frankly, the term is meaningless. There are no minimum sentences, and the IRB is, yet again, ignoring its own regulations.

I'll post more on this as and when the full decision comes out - if, indeed, it ever comes out at all.

Friday, September 9, 2011

RWC Part I - Scrum five

First match of the RWC today, between the All Blacks and the Tongans; the All Blacks won 41-10. Ma'a Nonu is making tries out of nothing with the support lines he's running, and the Tongans did a hell of a lot better than anyone expected after a first half that was all All Black.

The aim here, during the World Cup, is (apart from watching a lot of rugby), looking at games and seeing what they throw up in terms of law-related issues. Today's one was the scrum..

From about the sixtieth to seventieth minute of today's game Tonga - courtesy of some stunning tackling and a hospital pass thrown to the man NZ can least afford damaged, Dan Carter - were camped on the AB line. There was a string of scrums, with resets. My rough count was three resets with no penalty, one free kick for an early engage, and three penalties, all to the Tongans. They were scrummaging very well at that point.

Now, as far as I'm concerned, happy days. I love scrummaging. Love watching it, loved it when I was playing; it's brilliant, and I could watch scrums all day long. And the Tongans were doing a right number on the AB scrum. But it did get me thinking.

Back in the good old bad old days, scrums were set where the ball went dead. If it was within five metres of the line, it was set where the ball went dead. It was then changed to a minimum distance of five metres out from the line.

Now, the longer a scrum goes on, and the further it drives, the more unstable - and hence, dangerous to the players in the scrum - it gets. Hence the limitations in the U-19 variations; it can't go more than 1.5m forward, to prevent that happening. It means, of course, that you can't have a pushover try at underage level.

It also means that, at the top level, where injury is more prevalent, the laws are set up so that to score a pushover try, a scrum has to go further than it did before the law change when the scrums were set where the ball went dead. 

But, as noted above, that's more dangerous; a scrum that has to to go five metres is longer, and more likely to collapse, than a scrum that only had to go three metres. Bizarrely, it made the scrum more dangerous, while reducing the chances of one of the greatest things in rugby - one pack pushing the other back over their line and scoring.

It also creates a perverse incentive. If I'm a prop, two metres from my line, under pressure, and I drop the scrum to prevent a probable try, chances are I'll give away a penalty try. I'm as well off to keep it up and fight it out. But if I'm five metres out, under pressure, well, five metres is a long way to drive a scrum; it's not a probably try from five metres out. So, if I'm under pressure, the sensible thing to do isn't to wait until I'm driven back to drop it; it's to drop it straight away. I'm better off to drop the scrum straight away. Yes, it's dangerous; but that's not how props think. You don't want to give away seven points; so, drop it five metres out. The law change rewards props who don't stay up and fight it out, but drop the scrum. And that's not how it's meant to work, either in terms of the game, or the law.

So, a well-meaning law change has led to more dangerous scrums, at a higher risk of collapse, more collapsed scrums and fewer pushover tries. Exactly what no-one wants.

The IRB has mentioned that it would like submissions on the proposed changes to the laws. So, in that spirit, I would love to see a reversion to the old law of the scrum being set where the ball went dead being tried out, and a proper comparison done. It would be safer, and therefore a better option in terms of avoiding liability. 

It would also mean more pushover tries and good scrummaging being rewarded. And that can't be encouraged enough.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Red card offence = ! Part II

Roughly a month ago, the IRB sent out a memorandum to match officials and citing commissioners about high tackles. I've mentioned it before; you can read it HERE.

In essence, it's zero tolerance; if it goes high, it's a high tackle, and intention has nothing to do with it. We saw it in action in the recent Ireland-England game (and it's interesting to note that the commentators on the game didn't appear to know about it). And, in what may seem like a rare departure, I would consider it a very good day's work by the IRB. It's clear, concise, workable, makes absolute sense and looks after players and the game.

But the most interesting thing about the memorandum from the point of view of this blog is this part:

An illegal high tackle involving a stiff arm or swinging arm to the head of the opponent, with no regard to the player’s safety, bears all the hallmarks of an action which should result in a red card or a yellow card being seriously considered.
Referees and Citing Commissioners should not make their decisions based on what they consider was the intention of the offending player. Their decision should be based on an objective assessment (as per Law 10.4(e)) of the overall circumstances of the tackle.

Now, this is what I touched on when I asked what constitutes a red card offence for a citing hearing. Here, for the first time, we have an answer; as far as swinging arm or stiff tackles to the head are concerned, we can say with certainty that these are red card offences.

The reason this is so interesting is that it gives certainty in a citing hearing. If a player knows that what he has been charged with is a red card offence, then it crosses the threshold for a correct citing. So, it should be cited whenever it happens. There is, for the first time, clarity and certainty in the disciplinary system; do this, and not only you will get done for it, but you'll have to plead and look for mitigation.

And that's a big departure, but a very welcome one. Because once the players know what they will definitely be cited for, they will not do it - and fewer high, swinging tackles is something everyone wants. Once the players' legal advisers know what will definitely be punished, then they can give definite advice to their clients in disciplinary hearings, and the disciplinary system becomes more certain, more consistent, less arbitrary and less open to challenge.

Certainty and clarity are hallmarks of a good disciplinary system. At least in one small area, rugby now has that. It is to be welcomed, and should be expanded.