Mark Reason: Sorry, but the All Blacks are now a dirty side
OPINION: Steve Hansen said after the All Blacks beat Ireland in Dublin last November: "Do you want me to tell you we're a dirty side or something."
It seems to me the answer to that question is now a colossal YES in capital letters. YES, it's a swinging arm in the affirmative. YES, it's a leading shoulder to the head. I apologise if that upsets you in the rugby shires, but the rest of New Zealand is fed up with the dreadful, headhunting example set by the All Blacks.
A couple of weeks ago I spoke at a dinner of the Auckland Medical Legal Society on the subject of concussion. All bar one of the doctors and lawyers who spoke to me afterwards were worried and repulsed at the height of the tackle and the continuing damage to young people's heads.
It seems to me no other major international team in world rugby takes out the neck and head of opponents with such sickening regularity.
Romano could probably not be blamed for Tomas Cubelli having to be put in a neck brace. Romano got his man, but it was Sonny Bill, turning in his body as Cubelli fell, who was shamefully responsible for the damage.
But Romano consistently went over the top with his tackling technique. He hit Lucas Noguera, Tomas Lavanini, Pablo Matera and Joaquin Tuculet with high shots. He then smashed into Martin Ladajo. Again Romano was upright with his body position and his shoulder juddered into Ladajo's head.
Astonishingly nothing was done. Even more astonishingly Hansen said after the match: "I thought Luke Romano had probably his best game in the jersey."
Well, Romano had his best game in the jersey if he is measured on the Meads-o-meter. Violence now seems to be almost celebrated. It wasn't there to the same extent under Richie McCaw's captaincy which makes you wonder. McCaw preferred to call out cheap shots from the opposition prompting the New Zealand public to boo Quade Cooper.
So why aren't we booing our own players? This has been going on since the match in Dublin last November. Sonny Bill and Jerome Kaino brought it into the Lions series. And then four or five of the side exported the violence to Buenos Aires.
Early in the second half Vaea Fifita hit Tomas Lezana with a shoulder. It was high and there were no arms involved. A yellow card was the minimum sanction. Astonishingly nothing was done.
Then Kieran Read hit Matias Orlando with a very dangerous tackle. It wasn't an accident. Read made two or three other tackles in the match where the height was marginal. If you constantly drive at 70kph in a built up area there are going to be casualties.
Hansen said afterwards: "Reado got binned for a high tackle and he's the captain. He's been around long enough to know he shouldn't be doing that."
Typically, the implied concern was not for the welfare of the player who got hit, but for the fact that the All Blacks were down to 14 men. Indeed Hansen thought that his forwards "showed a real physicality...which was great."
At the AMLS dinner a charming elderly gentleman spoke to me as we were leaving. He recalled the time when he had been playing and, as an opponent came in for the tackle, he bumped him off with a thrust of the hip. Coach and captain removed him from the pitch and said that his action was dangerous to the head of the tackler and was unacceptable
So surely, knowing all we do now about the long-term implications of head injuries, it is no longer acceptable for the All Blacks to repeatedly tackle higher than any other first tier nation. Surely it is not acceptable for them to still play an enforcer at 6 and 12, where the likes of Jerome Kaino, Liam Squire and Sonny Bill seek to intimidate through frequently dangerous play.
Other world sides can be guilty of dangerous play, yet look around and ask yourself where all the hitmen have gone. A few dinosaurs still roam the planet, such as Adam Coleman, Yoann Maestri and Dylan Hartley. But they appear to be a dying breed, except in New Zealand.
South Africa always had a few bully boys like Bakkies Botha and Schalk Burger. Australia had the Owen Finegans of this world and England had thugs such as Martin Johnson and Danny Grewcock. Back in the days of Michel Palmie, Jean-Francois Imbernon and Jean-Pierre Bastiat you were safer in a high security prison than in the middle of the French pack.
But those teams have moved on and their average tackle height has come down. Yet it remains dangerously high in New Zealand, although mention the word "dirty" and the yeomanry will start to foam at the collar.
Hansen said about Warren Gatland, who had called his team out during the Lions tour: "I expect him to know the New Zealand psyche. It's not about intentionally trying to hurt anyone, it's about playing hard and fair."
Most of the doctors and lawyers I spoke to the other week think that is typical rugby guff from a bloke who can't see past his own team. They see a rugby culture that is still stuck in the past. They see queues of head injuries at the hospital doors. And they see the national team setting a terrible example.
But the biggest sadness of all is that these All Blacks can be the Brazil of rugby, playing the artful game as only they can. The Black Menace doesn't need to travel the world handing out dementia like a signed autograph of remembrance. These All Blacks could choose beauty over the beast.
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- Sunday Star Times