Punch ups. Scraps. A bit of ‘how’s your father’. They may have a few names the world over, but one thing is for certain: fights in rugby really aren’t what they used to be.
It’s a bit of a shame that ever since the advent of professionalism, players have had to act, well, more professional. There’s are still flare ups, usually as a result of a couple of front rowers getting upset at each other after a scrum penalty.
Players seem intent on grabbing each others’ collars and exchanging threats these days. Even on the odd occasion that someone does throw a punch, they rarely connect.
Except in 2012, at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin. Some genius decided to stage of a rebirth of the North vs South Island match, despite there being little public interest. To make matters worse, the event was supposed to be a fundraiser for the Otago Rugby Union, who had racked up debts of around half a million dollars.
The game was played without any current All Blacks, and the day after a test. Barely anyone showed up, but the ones who did got to see this:
There’s a lot to enjoy here.
- The dump-tackle by little Willi Heinz on his larger doppelgänger Jason Rutledge
- Dane Coles and Kenny Lynn immediately using it as an opportunity to settle some old score
- The fact that everyone comes in swinging and it turns into a brawl
- That the lack of crowd noise meaning you can hear some lady telling the players off for fighting in front of her kids
- Tom Donnelly getting up with blood everywhere and shrugging it off
- The ref deciding that there’ll be no action taken other than penalising Heinz for his tackle, despite the fact that we’ve just seen the most wild brawl in years
Without this flurry of violence, the one off North/South match would’ve quickly faded into obscurity. It is tempting to think that the powers-that-be subtly encouraged the aggression, given that it was exactly the reason that rugby league’s State of Origin series got so popular.
However, the only lasting legacy of this failed regeneration of an ancient relic was a lengthy ban for North Island lock Filo Paulo for his culpability in Donnelly’s rearranged facial features. The North/South match quickly disappeared off the NZ rugby calendar, probably for good this time.
Otago didn’t make any money off the failed venture, but stayed in business eventually. Paulo moved to banished himself to UK rugby indefinitely, his old team the Blues ironically signed Donnelly the next season. Referee Mike Fraser escaped any ramifications for his decision to shrug his shoulders and declare the fight a draw, going on the officiate at test match level.
Will we ever see anything like this again? It was a bit of a perfect storm: a nothing match, being played by guys whose test aspirations for the year were gone. So probably not, but it’s always nice to look back with some fondness at a time when the fists flew freely.