What is it they say about actions speaking louder than words? World Rugby makes a lot of noise about protecting the brains of players. Concussion – brain injury – is a grave and growing problem in the game and the governing body shouts long and loud about the need to get tough on hits to the head.
Tackle high – accidentally, some may argue unavoidably, or not – and you’re in trouble. Lead with an elbow into contact and you make a rod for your own back. There are cameras everywhere and officials on high alert with a battery of technology at their disposal. Transgressions bring greater punishments and foul play lengthier bans.
The message is clear – the head is sacrosanct and must be protected. And this is how rugby has to be while it grapples with rising brain injury rates and mounting research on what the impact of those blows might be.
You’d assume quite naturally then that deliberately headbutting an opponent in the face, even under provocation, would rank pretty near the top of the naughty list. A red card? Most certainly. A hefty ban? Surely. We’re getting tough on contact to the head, see?
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Watch: Laidlaw and Townsend reflect on Springboks defeat
Siya Kolisi wants to get down to the nearest Cardiff corner shop and buy himself a lottery ticket. Seldom will a player guilty of such violence escape with only a mealy-mouthed citing commissioner’s warning on his record.
The South African captain is not a dirty player but he visited a heinous act of brutality upon Pete Horne, the Scotland centre, in the Springboks’ Murrayfield triumph. Horne was illegally holding Kolisi down at the base of a ruck. The flanker glanced behind him, then threw his head back into the face and forehead of his opponent. It was disgusting and it was captured live on television.
Romain Poite, the match referee, appeared to be staring at the ruck but didn’t see the blow. Fair enough, but quite what TMO Ben Skeen was up to is anyone’s guess. This was a glaring miss.
“These things happen, but you question what the TMO is doing,” said the Scotland full-back, Stuart Hogg, on Monday.
“He can have a look three or four times, or as many times as he wants. The unfortunate thing was we got a good outcome on the back of that phase of play, so they didn’t look back at it.
“Peter Horne is a hard bugger and just managed to get on with it. He didn’t whinge about it.
“I asked Pete, ‘was that a legit head-butt?’ and he said he felt he was head-butted. But it has happened. We can’t do anything about it now.”
Kolisi was officially “warned” – a hollow ticking-off reserved for incidents that, according to World Rugby, “fall just short” of a red card. He was not cited because of two mitigating factors: firstly, that Horne was holding him down and secondly, that the force of the blow was “moderate”.
Provocation does not excuse violence. That’s the old playground defence: “But, sir, he started it!” It might be sufficient to knock a week or two off a suspension, but it should not be mitigation enough to downgrade a deliberate head-butt from anything but red.
And as for the “moderate” part – are we to deduce that a “moderate” headbutt is not worthy of a sending off? Because you didn’t land quite as vicious a blow as you’d hoped, you escape with rapped knuckles? “Sir, I only moderately stuck the head on him.” Speak to brain experts about the damage “moderate” blows can do. What dangerous nonsense this is. What an appalling message it sends. And what a risible contradiction this ruling creates. You are seeking to reduce brain injuries or you are not. The head is sacrosanct or it isn’t. It cannot be both.
The verdict is absurd in isolation but it is completely farcical when you look at what is going on across rugby just now. The sanctions other players are getting for accidental high shots or high-speed collisions are controversial and designed to encourage a change in behaviour. How can Danny Cipriani be sent off for a clumsy but timid high shoulder and Kolisi not for a deliberate head-butt? How can Pierre Schoeman get four weeks for an accidental shunt to the jaw of a poorly-set tackler and Kolisi get off with a warning?
You can pick out any number of derided but correct red cards from this season alone and each makes the Kolisi judgement more perplexing. And you can’t help but wonder if the outcome might have been different had a Tier Two player, especially a Pacific Islander, been doing the head-butting.
“Player welfare is massive. World Rugby are trying to make sure we are in the safest possible place,” Hogg went on to say.
“I just think there is a severe lack of consistency at all levels of the game now. World Rugby will look into it. They are in charge.”
So much flagrant garbage has been wailed about the game going soft, but it is harder than it has ever been. Rugby has some deep flaws to address and top of the list is making itself safer and more palatable to the public. That’s what these sanctions are about and why they are so important.
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Watch: Erasmus speaks after win over Scotland
Ironically, it was Kolisi’s coach, Rassie Erasmus, who spoke well about this seminal time.
“We all can live with it, if we have an open channel where we can discuss these things and get to the right answer,” he said in his post-match press conference.
“This transition period where we’re finding a way, like football when they tried goal-line technology, we just hang in there, because I know nobody is trying to cheat.”
Erasmus is right. We can all live with firmer punishments as long as they are consistently applied. We should embrace them as tools to rescue rugby from a perilous and uncertain future. There will be controversy and there will be scorn, but if ill-informed bleating is the price to pay for fewer brain-injured players and a safer sport, so be it.
Erasmus said something else on Saturday. “Nobody is nailing anybody on purpose.” He might want to speak to his captain about that. Amidst all the dispute, there are some tenets upon which we can all agree – namely, that deliberately head-butting an opponent should never be anything less than a red-card offence.
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