Wednesday, 26 August 2009

IRB Brings Rugby into Disrepute

On Monday, the IRB issued a statement regarding the outcome of the disciplinary hearing against the South African Rugby Union and Springbok players in connection with the team wearing "Justice 4" armbands during the third British Lions test. You can read the full IRB statement at the end of this article, but the gist is that the South Africans were found guilty (surprise surprise) of bringing the game of rugby into disrepute, but that the sentences imposed are relatively light due to a number of legal technicalities.

It's no great surprise they were found guilty, since the terms of the enquiry related only to the Springbok response to the citing and subsequent upholding of Bakkies's ban, and ignored the entire point the Springboks were trying to make, namely the perceived inconsistency in sanctions being applied against South African players relative to those from other countries.

"All the players want is consistency"

This is a mantra we hear from coaches, players and commentators with almost monotonous regularity. And it sums up the South African position on the banning of Bakkies Botha perfectly. Consistency is required from not only from match officials, but all the way to the top of the administrative hierarchy. The IRB has had many opportunities since the original incident to climb down off its high horse, address the Springboks' concerns, and seek a solution that would benefit everyone involved in rugby, not to mention enhance their own position as international administrators. Yet they have consistently refused to do so, choosing instead to continue escalating the issue way beyond proportion, all the while continuing to appear biased by not sanctioning similar incidents when the perpetrators are from other teams.

Even now that they have been "vindicated" by the independent review, they can not let it go and wish to press the issue even further by threatening to ban the Springboks from the 2011 World Cup. Can they do it? Well, they probably could - remember South Africa was banned from international competition during the Apartheid years. But the crucial difference then was that the powers-that-be occupied the moral high ground and had massive political support; the same can certainly not be said in this case.

I am no fan of all the petty politics that goes on in SA rugby, but perhaps for once all that experience can be used to benefit the Springboks rather than to hamper them. South Africa is no stranger to standing up against oppressive regimes: the resistance movement struggled for years against an unjust government (which was also supposedly based on the rule of law). Now I don't wish to denigrate the high price paid by many millions of people who were involved in that struggle by comparing it to what amounts to a schoolyard spat; however there are some interesting parallels.

It seems the IRB, much like the Apartheid regime, is happy to use the law when it appears to be in its favour, but shows a distinct contempt for the judicial process by scorning a sentence that is not as punitive as they would like. This smacks of an organisation not looking to uphold the law, but one that expects the law to uphold its own position and punish any who try to challenge its authority.

Guys, you can't have it both ways. If you agree to an independent review, you'd better be prepared to accept its findings. Otherwise how can we take you seriously ever again? You keep alleging that South Africa has brought the game into disrepute by its actions, but in my opinion you have done far greater damage to rugby by your stubborn refusal to address the root issue in all this: why are some players and teams allowed to get away with foul play while others are punished? Instead of your childish posturing, you need to be seen to resolve this for the good of all concerned, and the sooner the better, before irreparable harm is done!

The full IRB statement

"The South African Rugby Union, members of the South Africa squad and team officials have been found guilty of acts of bringing the Game of Rugby into disrepute in breach of the IRB Regulations Relating to the Game.

"The ruling was issued today by an Independent Disciplinary Committee chaired by the John Hansen (New Zealand), Guillermo Tragant (Argentina) and former Australian captain John Eales AM (Australia). The independence of the Committee is a feature of the IRB judicial system which is respected by the IRB and its constituent members.

"The action arises from the South Africa national team and management wearing armbands during the third Test against the British & Irish Lions on July 4 as a protest action following the upholding of Bakkies Botha’s two-week suspension by an independent Appeal Committee for dangerously charging into a ruck without binding onto a player.

"The guilty verdicts follow a misconduct hearing before the Independent Committee which was held in Dublin on August 10. During the hearing, the Committee heard submissions and evidence from SARU and members of the South Africa national team and team management (including John Smit and Peter de Villiers, the Springbok captain and coach respectively), before retiring to consider its verdict and sanction.

"While, for technical legal reasons, the Independent Committee dismissed the Misconduct charges under Regulation 17, the committee expressly found that on the merits of the case the actions of SARU, its players and team management 'brought the game into disrepute, criticised the judicial process and was misconduct'. The Independent Committee separately noted 'such misconduct to be serious' in nature and commented that 'there has been no formal apology, acknowledgement, contrition or clarification from either the players or the SARU themselves'.

"The Independent Committee made it very clear in its ruling that 'the playing arena is no place for protest' and that the wearing of the armbands 'showed a serious lack of respect and consideration for their opponents'. It was clear that 'If players choose to wear on their uniforms armbands or other emblems which bring the game into disrepute, then they have breached that Regulation [11]'.

"The Independent Committee criticised SARU 'because they allowed the Game and the IRB to be brought into disrepute by not only by failing to attempt to prevent this protest, but by approving of it and effectively consenting to [...] conduct which was prejudicial to the best interests of the IRB and of the Game'.

"The Independent Committee therefore imposed a fine of £10,000 (ZAR127,000) on SARU, £200 (ZAR2,500) against each of the other players who wore the protest armbands and £1,000 (ZAR12,700) against John Smit who the Committee determined as captain of the South Africa team has greater role model responsibilities.

"The Independent Committee was unanimous in its view that, had it not been for the legal technicalities (including the fact that the Committee felt it had to take a 'necessarily strict interpretation' of certain aspects of Regulation 17), both SARU and the Springbok players and management would have faced much more serious sanctions, including a more severe fine in the case of SARU and the suspension of the Springbok players and management from the Rugby World Cup 2011 (such sanction to have been suspended in the absence of further acts of Misconduct before then).

"The Independent Committee ended its judgment with a clear statement that it believes its decision will deter 'all rugby players from adopting such an unwise and ill considered way to make their feelings clear to the IRB, or the general rugby watching public'.

"The IRB had sought significant sanctions in this case which was unique in Rugby terms, dealing collectively with a Union, its national representative team and senior management who acted in unison without regard for the best interests of the Game.

"Whilst welcoming the guilty verdicts, the IRB is extremely disappointed at the level of sanctions imposed against the South African Rugby Union and its players in light of the clear findings that they have brought the Game of Rugby into disrepute and acted in a manner which is prejudicial to the best interests of the IRB and the Game of Rugby.

"The IRB is giving urgent and serious consideration to the decision of the Independent Committee and the further options available to it, which include whether or not to bring an appeal against the level of sanctions imposed by the Committee. This ruling will be taken into consideration along with the recent Burger and Parisse eye-gouging cases, as part of the IRB’s ongoing review of Regulation 17.

"The IRB works tirelessly with all 116 Member Unions and key stakeholders to ensure the safety of players and the reputation of the Game is protected.

"The IRB will be making no further comment on this case while it considers its options."