It feels like forever since we started craning our necks over the horizon towards 2019 and the World Cup in Japan. Not anymore. The opening of a crisp, new diary has ushered the event into clear view and leaves Irish rugby braced for what could be its finest hour.
Or, if you are that way inclined, its latest bout of embarrassment and agonised soul-searching.
The national team’s burgeoning abilities and reputation form just the apex of a professional pyramid that looks impervious to deconstruction.
The four provinces turn into the new year in rude health. Connacht and Ulster have emerged from choppy waters to calmer climes and both Leinster and Munster plan on making a certain European gathering in Newcastle come May.
This is no sporting version of a Celtic Tiger. It is no bubble — not in the playing, administrative, or organisational senses, anyway — but World Cup or Champions Cup ambitions shouldn’t sit at the summit of our ambitions for the sport this year.
Not when the game’s approach to player safety still borders on the schizophrenic.
It’s little more than three months since World Rugby issued its latest guidelines on the application of laws surrounding high and dangerous tackles and yet the weeks since have presented us with a litany of incidents that should have merited greater punishment on and off the field of play, but ultimately didn’t.
The roll of shame is long and the sheer variety astounds. Among them were Owen Farrell’s two blatant no-arms tackles for England in November, which went unpunished; Rory Kockott’s pitiful three-week ban for making contact with the eyes of a Munster player during the game against Castres in December; and the yellow card awarded to Ulster’s Robert Baloucoune when he emptied Darren Sweetnam in the air in Belfast.
Rare is the incident that has met with a universal opinion.
Farrell’s unapologetic foul against South Africa was actually defended by large sections of the English media. Stephen Ferris felt Baloucoune’s infringement merited yellow and, while Eddie O’Sullivan labelled it a red all day, he felt it was “good for the game” on the night that red hadn’t been produced.
If there is one snapshot that summed up rugby’s confused stance on safety it came in Thomond Park last Saturday when Leinster’s Tadhg Furlong barreled into Munster’s Chris Cloete at a ruck, leaving the South
African flanker with injuries that required lengthy medical attention, an exit off the pitch in a motorised stretcher, and in a neck brace. Rule 9.20, governing dangerous play in a ruck or maul, leaves no room for argument:
A) “A player must not charge into a ruck or maul. Charging includes any contact made without binding onto another player in the ruck or maul.”
B) “A player must not make contact with an opponent above the line of the shoulders.”
The problem here was the punishment.
James Lowe would receive a red card just minutes later for actually pulling out of a contest for a high ball with Andrew Conway — a decision, incidentally, with which we have no issue here — and yet Furlong was only sent to the sinbin for 10 minutes for launching his 19 stone-plus frame in a reckless manner and injuring an opponent in the process. That isn’t right.
It can’t be right if rugby is serious about player safety. Mitigating circumstances weren’t long in clouding the incident at the time. Liam Toland, on co-commentary, spoke about the last-minute movement of Leinster’s James Tracy who was grappling with Cloete and, in falling to one side, left the man in red exposed.
Referee Frank Murphy was just as quick to read into the laws of unintended consequences. Murphy, in his discussion with the TMO, suggested it was not a case of foul play, but that there had been no attempt at a wrap by Furlong as his arm and chest careered into the neck/head area of Cloete. “From there on, the number seven’s head from Munster emerges, the other player isn’t sure, so it is a bit of an awkward collision,” Murphy said. “There isn’t intent in it as far as I can see, so it is going to be a yellow card for the number three.”
TMO: “I agree.”
Now, we could go back to February of 2011 and a memorandum from what was still the IRB at the time and repeat the point made then that referees and citing commissioners “should not make their decisions based on what they consider was the intention of the offending player”. But should we have to?
Now? With everything we know about concussion and the general attrition rate in rugby?
Furlong is a class player. All our dealings with him build the impression of a decent bloke and no-one in their right mind would suggest he entered that ruck intent on the outcome that resulted in Cloete’s injury.
However, the fact is he entered that ruck high, at pace, in a vertical position and he lacked the required duty of care for his opponent. Same as Lowe, in many ways, yet only he saw red and ultimately received a two-week ban.
Not good enough, rugby. Again.