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.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Calum Clark Citing Decision.

When a disciplinary system rewards misleading a tribunal and punishes eating biscuits, it's very hard not to think that system is broken.

In the final of the Anglo-Welsh Cup on the 18th of March, Calum Clark of Northampton Saints was involved in a ruck. The whistle went, awarding a penalty to Saints. Clark grabbed the right arm of hooker Rob Hawkins of Leicester Tigers and then used his weight to bend Hawkins' arm backwards and hyper-extended the elbow joint, breaking the arm in several places. You can see that action from in-field HERE, and also an unimpeded view from the other side, HERE and HERE (the footage is originally from Sky via, and converted into a slower format by a poster on the Gwlad forum).

Note, in particular, what Clark does with his right arm, looking down, then bringing it down on the right elbow of Hawkins before he then rocks himself backwards. Note further that all the way through this, the referee is signalling a penalty to his side - you can see on the first view that the referee blows for the penalty at 0:13, and Clark does not grab Hawkins' arm with his left arm until 0:15 - and the ball is clearly visible and available.

Let us be absolutely blunt about this. This was an absolutely sickening act, and one that has no place on the rugby pitch. It was not accidental; it was after the whistle had gone - three seconds after, according to the recital of facts at the start of the decision - more than enough time to let go. Clark did not bring his left elbow down to pin Hawkins' arm by accident, and he did not then throw his weight backwards by accident. Claims that it was an effort to move a player who, even on the decision itself, was trapped under another player, may be disregarded; anyone who has played the game knows that you will not shift someone trapped under 100kg of player by bending their elbow the wrong way until it snaps.

If the word "thuggish" cannot be applied to this behaviour, then it should be retired from the language as being of no further value or use.

After that match - which Saints lost - Clark tweeted:

Another final. Another runners up medal. In the bin.

You can see the original tweet HERE; it is from 6:08 that evening, shortly after the game.

He was cited for his actions. In the meantime, Hawkins - who was out of contract, and playing to try and get a new one - had to have surgery on his elbow: the break was so bad that reconstructive surgery was impossible. It is unclear if he will be able properly to straighten his arm again.

The citing hearing was on the 29th of March, and the decision came out on the 30th. Clark was suspended for 32 weeks, reduced by half from 64 weeks. You can read the full decision HERE. Astonishingly, Saints appear to have felt hard done by, judging by their press release. To appreciate just how incredible a position this is, let us now look at the decision.

It should be noted that this was not the first time that Clark had been in trouble. On the 20th of June, 2008, he was sent off in the Under 20 World Cup Final for attacking two different opponents - you can see the offences HERE. Clark was born on the 10th of June, 1989; he was 19 when he was sent off in the U20 RWC final.

Except that's not what he told the Judicial Officer, His Honour Judge Jeff Blackett. Clark claimed that he was 17 at the time, and Richard Smith QC, acting for him, made submissions on that basis for which he was thanked by the learned judge: to quote the decision:
Mr. Smith submitted that the one previous incident of foul play could be ignored because it was five years old and committed when the player was under 18 and that he could be treated as a man of good character.
Clark was not under 18 when he was sent off. He was 19. It was stated as a fact by Counsel that he was under 18. This is highly significant. Clark was given a 50% discount on the sentence for having a clean record past the age of 18 when he did not have such a record. Crucially, and astonishingly, neither a QC not a judge appear to have been able to twig that a player in an Under 20 final is almost always going to be over 18: Under 20 is the next age group up from Under 18. Neither realised, or appeared to do the elementary mathematics to realise, that a player born in early June 1989 must have been 19 in late June 2008.

It should be noted, in passing, that Counsel have a duty not to knowingly or recklessly mislead a tribunal in front of which that Counsel appears. In this case, one presumes it was mere inadvertence; but it is somewhat surprising that no steps to apprise the tribunal of the correct age of Clark appear to have been taken in the intervening three weeks.

As it stands, whether by inadvertence or by Counsel being misled as to the age of his client, the tribunal was misled as to a crucial piece of evidence that was entirely material and central to the decision and the sentence handed down. Clark got the benefit of the hearing being misled as to his age.

It should be added, nor was it the only factually debatable statement: Clark claimed that "[f]or me, the result of the game was insignificant". You may compare and contrast that statement with his actual tweet straight after the game ended which you may see above. There are many other such statements: it's well worth reading his account and watching the videos at the same time to contrast and form one's own opinion.

Now, here we have a situation where, unquestionably, the JO was told something that was not true, as a palpably and demonstrably false mitigation, and on the basis of which an offender got the maximum discount allowable. Yet, by contrast, Brendan Venter ate a biscuit provided at his hearing - and this was an aggravating circumstance to be treated as expressing disdain for the system.

So, bluntly, when misleading a judge about maiming opponents gets fulsome praise for upholding the system but eating biscuits strikes at the root of rugby discipline, how can it be said that this disciplinary system is now not teetering on the verge of the genuinely arbitrary?

This needs to be addressed by the game. Fast. Because someone who is willing to do this to an opponent and then mislead the citing hearing has no place on the pitch.

Edit: slight typos fixed.