Embarrassing handbags better than thuggery

Football has its share of problems. Diving and play-acting are two of them.

There are few things as embarrassing or shameful as the simulation that has infected the world game. When a match boils over, the players rush in from all corners of the pitch. They push and jostle and gesticulate. They throw themselves to the ground like professional wrestlers at training school.

Two players stand chest to chest, and one, or ,when it gets really hilarious, both of them, collapse clutching their faces and squealing like stuck pigs. It's not even handbags, it's handkerchiefs, and when the tantrums finally die down and the acting awards have been handed out, the end result is zero injuries.

It makes football a laughing stock, but mercifully it falls several kilometres short of the real violence - the stomping on heads, the forearm smashes from behind, the elbow chops on a prone try-scorer, the eye gouging, the flying headbutts, the spear tackles, the biting - that exist in other football codes.

It's possible that footballers' tiny pain threshold, combined with their propensity for over-acting, is what actually protects it from the really bad stuff. They act like a fire alarm. At the tiniest whiff of trouble, the players start wailing and screaming, and the problem is snuffed out before it can really take hold.

No, it's in the sports where men are men that things get really grim, but just as appalling as the occasional act of violence in these codes are the "attempts" to stamp it out. All Blacks rugby hooker Andrew Hore commits a criminal act which, had it happened off the sports field, would have warranted a prison term, and receives the laughable punishment of an eight-match suspension. Wait, there's more. For having a shave and doing a passable imitation of an apology - hey, and don't forget he'd been obstructed in the moments before the assault - the player has his ban reduced to five matches, which includes three friendlies! So you smash someone in the back of the head, and you're out for two matches! There's every chance Hore's people still deem that excessive, so they may be trying to have the suspension include team dinners and autograph sessions, so their boy doesn't have to miss any games at all. He might even end up in credit.

It's always amazed football players, who generally argue with the referee about the result of the coin toss, that rugby and league players are able to accept refereeing decisions with such discipline. Not a word of dissent. Off the field, however, it appears to be a different story. Compare the All Blacks' attempts to have Hore's punishment reduced with the example Manchester United set when their star striker, Eric Cantona, launched his studs-first attack on the anti-French thug in the Crystal Palace crowd back in 1995. Did United bleat about the provocation the spectator had given Cantona? About the bad tackles the Frenchman had suffered during the game? About the dodgy croissant he'd eaten beforehand? No, far from trying to excuse their player, they hit him with a three-month ban of their own. When the FA added another six months, did United say "Oh, in that case we'll remove our three months"? No they didn't, so Cantona, the team's most important player, missed nine months of football. Without him United lost both the Premier League and the FA Cup by a whisker.

Sometimes you've just got to take your medicine.

Billy Harris is a former All White.

Sunday Star Times