“I don’t think we’ve met before, but I’m the referee on this field, not you. Stick to your job and I will do mine. If I hear you shouting for anything again, I’m going to penalise you. This is not soccer, is that clear?”
This talking to dished out by Nigel Owens to a rugby player who conspired to get on the wrong side of the Welshman is a shining example of what many a rugby fan believes sets their sport apart. It is not enough to play the game, but one must embody the spirt of the sport as he does so. This is further evidenced with the five “character-building characteristics of rugby” as understood by the sports’ governing authority: Integrity, passion, solidarity, discipline, and respect. Incidentally, these five characteristics have all been found wanting during the 2016 Six Nations and the tournament’s officials are to blame.
The final round of matches of the 2016 Six Nations Championship are yet to be played, and already there is a sense that this edition of rugby’s oldest championship, lacking in moments of attacking flair, will be remembered for the failure to penalise dangerous and foul play.
England will be looking to secure their first Grand Slam since 2003 when they meet France tomorrow evening in Paris but much of the pre-match discourse will be clouded by the bizarre turn of events that have allowed Joe Marler to feature in the match.
The English prop escaped sanction in two cited incidents with Six Nations officials deciding that neither his strike of Wales’ Rob Evans with his forearm, nor his calling Samson Lee a “gypsy boy” should result in a ban. Thankfully Tomas Francis of Wales received an eight week ban for making contact with the eyes of Dan Coles, after incredibly not being shown a card of any colour by referee Craig Joubert. If he had not, the ability of the Six Nations to ensure player safety would be seriously suspect. As it is, there are questions facing the body.
The decision not to hand a suspension to Marler for his strike on Evans was a disappointment but not exactly a surprise. France’s Yoann Maestri escaped punishment following his late elbow to the head of Johnny Sexton following the second round of matches with the decision again being that the crime wouldn’t have warranted a red card. That the Six Nations showed consistency in their judgements does not mean that they were right.
That neither player was sin-binned for their actions – at the very least – ensured that they essentially emerged from the incidents on top having dealt strong blows to their opposition. Their absence from the pitch could have led to very different results of the respective matches with both decided by less than a try. Furthermore, the targets of the strikes, Evans and Sexton, were oblivious to the incoming blows and could have suffered significant injuries. At a time when rugby is facing questions on player safety and the merits of children playing the sport in school, the sport has again missed an opportunity to make a pointed message that player safety is paramount and acts of thuggery are not to be tolerated.
There is precedence for banning players who strike out during matches. Sean O’Brien missed out on Ireland’s World Cup quarter-final against Argentina last autumn after striking France’s Paschal Pape during the final game of the pool stage. That his one week suspension was even considered relatively soft after the clear video footage of his crime should be remembered in the wake of the lack of action taken on Marler and Maestri.
If the decision not to suspend Marler for his strike was expected, if still disappointing, the lack of punishment handed down on Marler for his comment to Samson Lee prompted incredulity among the rugby fans and commentators following the incident. The laws of rugby state that any verbal abuse based on religion, race, colour, ethnic origin or sexual orientation should carry a suspension of at least four matches. However it appears the Six Nations disciplinary panel reviewing the incident accepted Marler’s defence that the comment was said “in the heat of the moment”, and that the matter was closed after the prop apologised for his words at half time.
Samson Lee was hardly helped by his coach Warren Gatland referring to the incident as just “banter” after the match, but the decision not to penalise Marler remains shocking. In football, the sport rugby looks to compare itself favourably against so often, Luis Suarez received an eight week ban and £40,000 fine after being fined guilty of racially abusing Patrice Evra.
The argument that the comments were made “in the heat of the moment” should not have let Marler off the hook either. In 2011 Marler’s current England captain Dylan Hartley was given an 11 week suspension after calling referee Wayne Barnes a “fucking cheat”. It is doubtful that Hartley’s words were premeditated.
It appears that England was also convinced that Marler would be unavailable to play this weekend with the prop starting the match from the bench. Eddie Jones, the England Coach, was quick to point out that he was not punishing Marler by dropping him and later seemed angry that the Wales Rugby Union expressed their displeasure at the lack of a suspension.
As it is, Marler may receive a suspension with World Rugby indicating that it is not satisfied with the decision of the Six Nations. Any suspension will come too late to stop Marler playing on Saturday, and too late to make a strong message that verbal abuse along racial and ethnic lines is not acceptable. For the time being crime does pay, and the Six Nations is complicit in this.
BY FERGUS CARROLL