OPINION: New Zealand will be very interested to know if it is one rule for them and another rule for Australia.
You may well remember that in November, IRB boss Brett Gosper intervened after Adam Thomson was given a one-week ban for treading on a Scottish forward's head. But where is Gosper now? So far we have heard not a peep since James Horwill was farcically cleared of stamping on Alun Wyn Jones.
Some of us may wonder if it has something to do with the common nationality of the IRB chief executive and the captain of Australia's rugby team.
Has Horwill got away with his act of thuggery because, without their inspirational captain, the series against the British and Irish Lions might be as good as over? Is that why we have not heard from Gosper?
The incident itself was sickening. In the third minute of the first test Horwill brought his boot back across his body and into the face of Jones, who subsequently needed stitches for a wound next to his eye. The Welsh forward could have been blinded.
Anyone who knows the slightest thing about rugby was in no doubt that it was an act of deliberate intimidation of the sort that has defaced Lions series over the years. But just to seek a broader view, I asked a couple of builders who are round at my place, one an Australian, one a New Zealander, for their opinion. Aside from a bit of banter about shackle-draggers, both men were appalled and found Horwill's excuse quite laughable.
The Wallabies captain maintained that contact with Jones was quite unintentional and that the distorted movement of his right leg had been caused by the side impact of other forwards. The builders laughed.
The ARU should also have laughed. It should have stood its captain down as an example and not have bothered to defend the indefensible. But predictably it lined up behind Horwill and spent nearly four hours giving evidence before Nigel Hampton, QC, the judicial officer in the case.
Hampton ruled that on the balance of probabilities he could not find an intentional or deliberate action of stamping or trampling.
"I could not find that when James Horwill's right foot came into glancing contact with Alun Wyn Jones' face, that he was acting recklessly. I found that I could not reject as being implausible or improbable Horwill's explanation that, as he was driving forward with his right leg raised, he was spun off balance through the impact of Lions players entering the ruck from the opposite side."
Former England hooker Brian Moore's reaction to the finding was: "You [Hampton] are a f . . idiot. Still, it keeps up the tradition of lamentable judicial incompetence on Lions tours."
Of course Hampton, a reputable New Zealand silk, is far from an idiot. I am reliably informed by one who knows him that he is a man of integrity and ability. He also knows far more about the law than Moore, despite the old bruiser's former dabblings in that area and fondness for legal jargon.
But Hampton knows considerably less about rugby than Moore and herein lies the point. Why does rugby continually invite QCs and judges and barristers and all the Queen's horses to rule on areas of which they have no great understanding. It is the sort of thing that would be better done by former internationals such as Moore.
Will Carling also found against Horwill, writing, "Rugby is a tough game, sometimes brutal. One key code, no stamping on heads. Horwill, you did. Aussie QC - balance is a joke excuse. Shocking."
Indeed on the balance of probabilities Hampton made a complete balls-up of this hearing. Did Hampton know that Horwill has a lot of recent prior in this area? Just six weeks ago Horwill was given a post-match yellow card for stamping on Pek Cowan in the Reds' match against the Force. Two weeks earlier photos showed Horwill stamping on the face of Dan Palmer in the match against the Brumbies.
I find that on the balance of probabilities, Horwill is a serial stamper. One wonders, if CCTV footage showed the Aussie mugging three separate people over the course of two months, whether Nigel Hampton, QC, would think that he had been spun off balance on each occasion. Hampton is on record as saying there are "systemic problems of health and safety throughout the country," so it is unfortunate that he has just added to them.
What sort of example does the clearing of Horwill set? Vigilante law is OK if you are the captain? And what sort of example is being set by the ARU? It is comical that in the world's great nanny state, the ARU continue to be reckless about the safety of players.
They were reckless in defending Horwill. They are reckless in considering Christian Lealifano, who suffered a very serious concussion, for the second test. They are reckless in selecting Berrick Barnes, a serial head case, at any level of rugby. Where on earth is player welfare in any of this?
Lions coach Warren Gatland said, "I played in the days when rucking was allowed and I've still got some scars that bear witness to the ruckings I had, but for me the head was sacrosanct and you stayed away from that."
We all played and play by that code except, it would seem, Horwill. I argued at the time that Gosper was right to intervene over Thomson, even though it was "certainly not malicious" according to the player stamped on. But Horwill's stamp was malicious. So where are you now, Mr Gosper? We await your intervention.
- The Dominion Post
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