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FEATURE Disciplinary verdicts as puzzling as ever – even when consistent to a fault

Disciplinary verdicts as puzzling as ever – even when consistent to a fault
2 months ago

There has long been a healthy scepticism of the workings of the SANZAAR judicial panel from northern hemisphere rugby types, and every now and again even we in the south sometimes have to concede they might have a point.

The judiciary rubbed out Queensland Reds pair Tate McDermott and Fraser McReight for three weeks each after round eight, and there really couldn’t be any decent argument mounted against either sanction. McDermott let fly with an old-fashioned swinging arm in the 47th minute of their clash with Moana Pasifika in Whangarei, and McReight followed in the 73rd minute with what is now very much a regulation high tackle, with shoulder making direct head contact.

There was no surprise when both were upgraded to red cards during the game, and not much more when the judiciary findings came out in the days following.

Mind you, that didn’t stop the howls of ‘where’s the consistency?’ from print and social media, nor from pundits and podcasters.

William Havili
Reds flanker Fraser McReight (top) copped a three-week ban for making direct contact to the head of Moana Pasifika’s William Havili (Photo Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

And that reaction was borne entirely out of the judiciary findings the previous week, when Fijian Drua scrum-half Frank Lomani was suspended for six weeks for a shocking elbow to the back of Melbourne Rebels lock Josh Canham’s head, but quite incredibly, replacement prop Jone Koroiduadua was suspended for only two weeks for landing a head-butt on the chin and chest of Rebels hooker Alex Mafi.

Both were charged with having breached Law 9.12 – Physical abuse, with Lomani’s elbow adjudged to have met the top-end entry of 10 weeks. After applying all the standard discounts for “entering an early guilty plea (and other relevant mitigating factors)”, Foul Play Review Committee chair Stephen Hardy reduced the total suspension from 10 weeks down to six.

Amazingly, however – and this is where judicial panels leave themselves open to criticism and scepticism around their motives – Koroiduadua’s head-butt was only deemed to have merited a low-end entry point of six weeks.

Suddenly, a judiciary panel was noting the lack of injury to the victim, and in this case, effectively downgraded a clear and obvious head-butt because it missed its intended mark. A reward for poor execution, essentially.

Considering the ‘Striking with head’ part of the Physical Abuse Law carries a top-end entry point of 16 weeks, and a maximum of 52, there was general astoundment Koroiduadua’s clear intentional act could come in so low – or a judiciary panel would not want to ‘send a message’ and come down hard on what is universally regarded as one of the worst things a player can do on a rugby field.

But the panel’s ruling explained their findings, and the general astoundment was replaced with complete shock, and soon after, genuine anger.

“The FPRC deemed the act of foul play merited a low-end entry point of six weeks primarily given that the player and victim player were “head to head” prior to the incident,” the ruling read. “The player’s head appears to have made limited contact with the head of the victim player and rather made contact with the chest area of the victim player. There was also no injury to the victim player.

“The Foul Play Review Committee emphasised that had there been more forceful head contact made, the entry point may well have been higher than low-end.”

Jone Koroiduadua
Drua prop Jone Koroiduadua was sent off but only banned for two weeks for a deliberate head-butt (Photo Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

Suddenly, a judiciary panel was noting the lack of injury to the victim, and in this case, effectively downgraded a clear and obvious head-butt because it missed its intended mark. A reward for poor execution, essentially. But had he hit Mafi higher in the face, we’re to assume they would absolutely, definitely have meted out harsher punishment.

The panel halved the entry point of six weeks down to three for all the usual caveats – show me an example of a player not showing remorse after a guilty charge, or behaving anything other than impeccably in front of the panel assembled to rule on the foul play act they just pleaded guilty to – and then further found “a sanction of three weeks would have been wholly disproportionate to the level and type of offending involved, and applied a further reduction of one week to the sanction, resulting in a total sanction of two weeks.”

“There is intent there, whether he lands it or not is irrelevant,” an irate Rebels coach Kevin Foote said in the days after the incredible findings.

Here was one of the dirtiest, most despised acts on a rugby field happening in full view of dozens of UHD cameras and suddenly Alex Mafi’s lack of a broken nose was a consideration. It just didn’t make sense.

“If [Alex] Mafi has his head forward at that stage and he hits him, does that make it worse?

“That is malicious. My understanding is if you make any contact with the head, we have been told that is top, top, top suspension. And he gets two weeks.”

His understanding was one widely shared. High tackles and dangerous clean-out charges rarely take the impact on the victim into account in forming sanctions, yet here was one of the dirtiest, most despised acts on a rugby field happening in full view of dozens of UHD cameras and suddenly Mafi’s lack of a broken nose was a consideration. It just didn’t make sense.

Kevin Foote
Rebels coach Kevin Foote was less than impressed with the panel’s verdict on Koroiduadua’s head-butt (Photo Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Fast forward a week, to McDermott and McReight, and their resultant suspensions brought no huge surprise, despite what the aforementioned media howls were making out.

And the howls were disingenuous at best, and intentionally misleading at worst, because even just a cursory glance of judicial findings would have found both McDermott and McReight ‘s suspensions to be completely in line with similar charges.

In McReight’s case, of the 32 charges made in breach of Law 9.13 with regard to dangerous (high) contact in the two-and-a-half seasons of Super Rugby Pacific, 22 of them finished with the obligatory six-week suspension wound down to three. Two more charges – both in 2024 – finished with only two-week discounts and with no real explanation of why, while NSW Waratahs flanker Lachie Swinton was in 2023 charged with a top-end high tackle and suspended for seven weeks, despite not even receiving a yellow card for the incident in the game.

McReight’s case was so garden variety it was only ever going to finish with the standard ‘six down to three’ ruling which is so common these days, it’s become a point of mockery. The panel being consistent to a fault, if anything.

And in McDermott’s case, his and the Lomani and Koroiduadua cases were the only instances of charges against Law 9.12 Physical Abuse since the competition began in 2022. When viewed against Lomani’s elbow, McDermott’s certainly couldn’t come in higher than mid-range, a reflection of his intention when he clenched his fist and let it go. Though it could easily have been, there was no mention of McDermott’s strike having little impact, nor that the receiving player suffered any injury. Again, pretty consistent in the context of this law.

Tate McDermott and Fraser McReight
Tate McDermott and Fraser McReight both had a standard six-week ban reduced to to three (Photo Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Arguments of inconsistency with regard to the SANZAAR judicial process in use for Super Rugby Pacific are mostly superficial, rarely hold water, and almost never based on actual knowledge of their findings. The process is set and followed to the letter – again, sometimes to a fault – and all findings are reached and handed down in accordance with the prescribed process.

And note, SANZAAR, the partnership between the South African, New Zealand, Australian, and Argentine national unions, don’t run or administer Super Rugby at all these days. The new Super Rugby Pacific competition is a 50-50 joint venture between NZR and RA, with SANZAAR engaged only to provide judicial and travel logistics support.

The actual administration of the competition is supposed to be coming from the new competition-specific commission installed late last year, with highly regarded New Zealand marketing expert Kevin Malloy appointed chair in December. Any day now, it will become apparent this new commission is actually in charge, because there hasn’t been a lot of evidence of that to date.

Sometimes suspensions just don’t pass the pub test, and it’s in these cases that rugby as a game and the regional professional competitions across the rugby world let the game’s supporters down.

The judicial process remains independent from the administration of the competition, as it has to be.

But that doesn’t mean it is not prone to the occasional head-scratcher, as the puzzling case of Koroiduadua’s head-butt proved to be.

How a clear case of an intentional act of foul play – and one of the most heinous acts in rugby – can be so easily watered down will remain an active criticism of the process, an active criticism in this case entirely justified.

Sometimes suspensions just don’t pass the pub test, and it’s in these cases rugby as a sport and the regional professional competitions across the rugby world let the game’s supporters down.

Comments

14 Comments
A
Andrew 50 days ago

But the panel’s ruling explained their findings, and the general astoundment was replaced with complete shock, and soon after, genuine anger.

Astoundment? What the heck is that?

T
Trevor 84 days ago

Thanks Brett, love your articles which are alway pertinent.

It’s a difficult topic trying to have a panel adjudicating consistently penalties for red card issues.

Many of the mitigating reasons raised are judged subjectively, hence the different outcomes. How to take away subjective opinions?

J
Jon 84 days ago

Yes Sir! Surprising, just like Fraser would also have escaped sanction if he was a few inches lower, even if it was by accident that he missed!

Has there really been talk about those sanctions or is this just sensational journalism? I stopped reading, so might have missed any notations.

J
JD Kiwi 84 days ago

Sometimes people just like a moan mate!

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