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Dublin: 12 °C Friday 22 February, 2019

Ireland, the All Blacks, and rugby's struggle to find an acceptable level of violence

Physicality a serious concern but for all of their handwringing, rugby fans aren’t looking the other way, writes Tommy Martin.

Robbie Henshaw salutes the crowd while leaving the field with an injury Robbie Henshaw was injured by an early tackle from Sam Cane. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

I THOUGHT WE’D had our fill of cynicism this month, with the whole Donald Trump thing. You know, championing the downtrodden white folk of America from his faux-Versailles penthouse in Manhattan, and all that.

That was until the All Blacks rolled into town. And they seemed so nice as well.

“Hey!” we wondered as another Kiwi shoulder crushed into an unsuspecting Irish skull, “that guy was on the news playing hurling with a seven-year old the other day!”

Naturally we weren’t happy about what went down last Saturday. It wasn’t so much that they beat us (they have occasionally done so in the past, apparently) but the way they went about it.

Perhaps there had been mixed messages — “Sorry coach, when you said get inside the heads of the Irish guys, we thought you literally meant….” — but it seemed like physical ultra-violence was a deliberate part of New Zealand’s post-Chicago strategy. Like they were saying: You smashed our national self-esteem, so now we’re going to smash your brains.

Or maybe we are just whiny little whingebags. That’s certainly been the accusation from New Zealand. “Control yourselves Ireland, you’ve replaced England as the new whingers of world rugby,” wrote Kiwi journalist Duncan Johnstone this week, knowing where to sting us most.

(By the way, is this the old Irish victim complex again? Is this Thierry Henry, except with GBH instead of deliberate handball? And just as John Delaney managed to purloin €5 million from Sepp Blatter’s petty cash tin, can the IRFU make our pain pay? “So, er, about that 2023 Rugby World Cup thing…..”)

Malakai Fekitoa tackles Simon Zebo high Malakai Fekitoa was suspended for a week for his high tackle on Simon Zebo. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

But while initial Irish outrage sprang from a collective sense of having had sand kicked in our faces, further analysis has focused on the issue of player safety. Which, for the avoidance of confusion, most people agree is a good thing and, you know, let’s have a bit more it maybe.

Much has been made this week of the World Rugby directive issued prior to the November internationals ordering referees to clamp down on high and dangerous tackles, and the general awareness of head trauma and concussion as a serious issue for the sport to grapple with, and how – just maybe – match officials and authorities have dropped the ball on that front in this case.

On Monday, journalist Paul Kimmage put forward a widely-held view on Today FM’s The Last Word. “The game is in serious trouble, because this is a disgrace,” he told Matt Cooper. “What happened to Robbie Henshaw is a disgrace. I think there were three head injuries, a number of neck injuries, and I think this is something that the sport really, really needs to address.”

The growing perception of excessive physicality is, of course, damaging rugby hugely. Fans expressed their disgust at the bruising collisions scarring the game by occupying every seat at the Aviva Stadium last Saturday. This followed on from the successful protest at Rugby World Cup 2015, which saw concerned supporters buy 2.47 million match tickets, handing an £80 million cash surplus to World Rugby in response to their failure to take player safety seriously.

Message received, loud and clear!

You can excuse rugby’s power brokers for looking at the bottom line and deciding that a lot of people actually quite like a bit of rough, even if they might not say so.

It’s like when a brawl breaks out — on a sports field, in a bar, at Black Friday sale in Harvey Normans — and people say they don’t like to see this kind of thing, but are unable to resist the primal urge to watch every haymaker and jab.

Malakai Fekitoa after the game Fekitoa: misses Saturday's game in Paris. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

These things don’t follow some evolutionary logic. Two decades ago, after a number of high-profile deaths in the sport, it was suggested that boxing would slide into irrelevance as humankind trended towards peace and cooperation. But now boxing is becoming irrelevant because younger fight fans have found something even more violent. (Yes, I know, I know, MMA is like human chess. Mind you, I’d like to see Garry Kasparov mount the Latvian Gambit with a fractured eye socket.)

Just as recent global politics have demonstrated that the better angels of our nature don’t always come out on top, so too must we admit that our appetites aren’t as soft and cuddly as we’d like to think. We say that we enjoy the physicality of rugby, then baulk when it crosses the line, as on Saturday. But violence, like right-wing propaganda, isn’t a nice tidy thing that stays where you want it. Sometimes it turns ugly and people get hurt.

So although rugby authorities say they are clamping down on nasty things like high tackles, when you see Malakai Fekitoa’s near-decapitation of Zebo punished with a measly one-week ban, it’s hard not to wonder if they are a little reluctant to tamper with such a compelling and successful product.

Or maybe I’m just being cynical.

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About the author:

Tommy Martin

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