In a game where the referee's word is final, and the referee's interpretation can decide matches, you have to wonder what's to be gained by calling him a f***ing cheat.
But that's just what Dylan Hartley did to Wayne Barnes in the Aviva Premiership final, gaining himself a red card, probably costing his team the game, and definitely costing himself a Lions trip with the ban of 11 weeks that followed.
There has been plenty written in this last week, in the run-up to the rugby-in-a-sauna first Lions game in Hong Kong, on Hartley's travails. Having written on deterrence of serial offenders before - HERE - a lot of it has already been covered. What I want to do in this post is look at three aspects of the decision, which you can read HERE. First, is the conduct at the hearing and how that was treated by the Tribunal; second in the light of that previous post, is deterrence; and third, which will link into the next post on Schalk Brit's embarrassment on creasing his Saracens team-mate Andy Farrell in Hong Kong, is the status of pre-season games for suspensions.
Hartley didn't deny saying the words, "f**king cheat"; he claimed he had simply said "f**king cheat", not "you f**king cheat", and that it was comment on the play of Leicester hooker Tom Youngs for an early drive (in passing, most rugby fans would acknowledge for Northampton to comment on an early drive from anyone is, in the immortal phrase from Apocalypse Now, like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500). Wayne Barnes was under absolutely no doubt that the comment was aimed at him by Hartley, whom he had warned about his conduct and comments as captain some two minutes previously.
Now, even if directed at Youngs, it's one of those comments that, when you've been warned, you might think, but shouldn't say. You certainly shouldn't say it looking at the ref, because that's asking for trouble. But the account given, in the words of paragraph 10 of the decision, "changed subtly"; at the hearing, Hartley there claimed not that he was speaking to Youngs, but that he was speaking to his loosehead prop about Youngs. The Tribunal was trenchant on this: "in our view, this is not a credible explanation". When one allows for the subtle manner in which judges with the experience of His Honour Judge Jeff Blackett couch matters, it's pretty damning: a comment like "the Player, on the other hand, has every reason to give an alternative explanation" is scathing, especially followed by:
We observed that this explanation changed subtly, no doubt after after he had examined the DVD footage showing that his eyes were not looking downwards.In layman's terms, this is basically to the effect of: you're making this up. What is interesting in this light is the finding on sentence, where the Tribunal held:
This strongly suggests that when looking at the conduct at the Tribunal element of mitigation, what counts is not what one says, but how one says it. This would be to align rugby citing hearings very strongly indeed with an adversarial model of hearing, like a Common Law trial, and that's something to which I hope to return in the future. It certainly does not give any disincentive to running somewhat stretched cases as defences.By pleading not guilty the Player has not demonstrated any remorse nor can he claim any benefit from any of the other matters listed at mitigating factors. His conduct at the hearing was, however, impeccable – and that does deserve some credit because the Player was under enormous emotional pressure facing, as he was, a suspension which is likely to lead to him missing the Lions tour to Australia. That credit is one week.
On which note of deterrence, the contrast between Hartley's previous two citings and this hearing is notable. His solicitor, Max Duthie - who presented the ERC case against Hartley in December when he was cited for striking Rory Best - made a plea in mitigation:
This was the manner in which Hartley had been treated at his previous two citings. It didn't wash this time; he was treated as an offender, with brisk despatch.However, Mr Duthie suggested that the Player was not an offender against the laws of the game within the meaning of RFU Regulation 19 and there should be no increase in sanction from the entry point.
We considered adding to that entry point on the basis that he is an offender of the laws of the Game. However, we determined that the positive aspects of his character should offset any increase.
It would have to be said that when a player has just been found guilty of his third red card-worthy offence in 14 months, it would fly in the face of reason to regard him in any other light.
Thirly, on the question of what matches are to count for suspensions, there was an interesting discussion in the decision about the Lions, in that players can frequently play more than one game a week and the Lions tour agreement requires citing hearings to reflect this. Although the Lions cover six weeks, the hearing found that "the Player may have expected to play in six of the matches and we have assumed that he might also be part of the match day squad for two other matches. This period, therefore, represents 8 of the 11 weeks of the suspension imposed." This is one that at first glance seems too light, but on reflection makes absolute sense. The aim of the Regulation on minimum bans is to reflect real bans from playing rugby. When a player, as on the Lions, is playing almost non-stop, then a shorter ban in time can actually be a much more severe ban in terms of rugby lost than a nominally longer one in time. It's sensible, and just; and some flexibility in a system is needed, a subject to which I intend to return in the future.
The interesting thing is that Northampton's pre-season games are assumed, automatically, to be meaningful ones which should count towards the sentence. This may well be the case, but it is that assumption to which I intend to turn in the post on Schalk Brits.