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.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Minimum Bans Part III - Adam Thomson

I ended Part Two of these posts on the Return of the Minimum Ban with the the words, "it'll definitely be one to keep an eye on this NH season."

If only I had the same gift of prescience with the numbers for the Euromillions.

In the Scotland-All Blacks game, All Black flanker Adam Thomson went to ruck Scottish flanker Alistair Strokosch. Strokosck, by his own cheerful admission on Twitter, was killing the ball - and good luck to him, because that's part and parcel of a flanker's job. So is taking the occasional lick of the studs in the cause; but the problem was, Thomson caught Strokosch on the head.

It is perhaps a sign of increasing age that I would happily see rucking come back on the rugby pitch, but the unwritten code even back in those far-off days of the last century, when it was the mark of one's success in defensive rucks that one came off the pitch looking like a raspberry-ripple zebra from the rake-marks, that contact with the head, or joints, was a strict liability offence; hit them, even accidentally, and off you went.

Thomson was cited; and, at the initial hearing, got a sentence of one week from the JO, Noel Couraud. The minimum sentence for this offence is two weeks.

There was instant furore. Various members of the press in the Northern Hemisphere were furious that this was too lenient, various members of the press in New Zealand were furious that they were furious. When Brett Gosper, CEO of the IRB, let it be known that the IRB were looking at this case and were thinking of appealing it, the outrage and umbrage from both sides went up even further (in ease of those looking for links, the volume of them is such that I suggest you look at Twitter as a start point, rather than the endless number of links that would be required).

What is, again, surprising is that none of them seemed to pick up on the key point; the requirement under the new regulation 17 that minimum bans mean minimum.

The IRB appealed; and the appeal was heard by a panel of His Honour Judge Jeff Blackett, Pat Barriscale and Jeffrey Summers; a very, very heavy-hitting panel. The full decision is not yet available, yet we can say what the essence of it was: the ban was increased to two weeks not because the one week was too lenient - that part was rejected - but because it broke the requirements of the minimum ban part of Regulation 17.

So, we now have the first-ever appeal of a sentence by the IRB; the enforcement of the minimum ban regulation; and an almighty eruption of vitriol in the press that might have been avoided if journalists actually read the press releases from the IRB and SANZAR. The vitriol is regrettable, but the others are not. It is refreshing to see the IRB backing up its one rules, and actually following through. however much sympathy one has for Thomson, a fine and clean player with the immense misfortune to be playing in the same county and same position as one of the greatest players the game has ever seen, it is right that where the rules are broken in a hearing that it be rectified.

It should be noted that this is not a question of leniency; one may feel an outcome is too lenient, but it is the process that is the key. So long as the process is correct and the rules followed, one may err. It is unfortunate, but it is what is referred to in the Courts reviewing matter of this kind as an error within jurisdiction. A breach of the rules, such as happened here, is a different matter, and is open to challenge; and the IRB is to be commended for facing up to the responsibility to deal with the matter, not least because this pre-emption and this willingness to enforce the rules properly makes it more likely that rugby does not end up in the Courts.

It's now over and dealt with, as are the November tests. It is to be hoped that the IRB will continue to hold this line, in all cases; and it's to be hoped that journalists might read press releases from June before things blow up in November.