Rolling with the punches
The first two rounds of Super Rugby have seen six citations, four of them for very similar offences, but the punishments have been far from consistent.
The idea of citing offences and punishing offenders in an official and supposedly impartial hearing following the match is a sound principle, the protection of the players is paramount and actions need to be taken to stamp out foul play.
However, like many judicial procedures, what looks good in principle is often implemented so badly that it calls into question the effectiveness of said principle.
In Round One of this year's Super Rugby there were three incidents that required the citing commissioner to step in – all of them coming from Australians.
Firstly, Rebels scrumhalf Nic Stirzaker was yellow-carded for stamping on Richie McCaw in game one against the Crusaders.
He was cited and received a one-week ban which saw him miss the game against the Waratahs the following week.
Judicial officer, Nicholas Davidson, said of the incident that Stirzaker "accepted the stamp was reckless to the point of contact."
Davidson also added that "he [Stirzaker] had no tenable excuse or explanation" and that the incident called for a two-week ban but the scrumhalf was "entitled to a discount of one week" due to his good disciplinary record.
In the same match, and to the same player (Richie McCaw), Scott Higginbotham was also cited for stamping.
This time Adam Casselden deemed the stamp to be accidental.
"After hearing from the player and Tim North and watching the video footage a number of times, I could not be satisfied on the balance of probabilities that the player intentionally or deliberately stamped his opponent," Casselden said.
In these two incident there are incredible similarities, yet the application of the law is inconsistent and based primarily on testimonial from the player.
Had Stirzaker begun his hearing with a plea of not guilty, would the Judicial officer also be inclined to see it as accidental? There are plenty of boots and bodies on the ground in a game of rugby and accidents happen according to Higginbotham…
The final citing of Round One saw Reds lock James Horwill brought before a hearing after receiving a second yellow card and subsequent red for repeated infringements.
What is interesting in this matter is how the personality of the judicial officer can play a massive part.
Again, the officer in this case was Nicholas Davidson, he said of the matter: "Regulation 17 does not require a sanction, but it may be imposed in the exercise of discretion."
He went on to say: "The Law is intended to reinforce the need for discipline" and "Horwill has a good disciplinary record"
Now, I have a very different opinion of Horwill's discipline, and I am not saying my thoughts are correct or that Davidson's opinion is wrong, I am saying they differ.
I have seen Horwill blow-up at a post-match media conference, seen the captaincy of the Reds taken away from him and noted the high number of yellow cards he received last year.
Horwill does not have a good disciplinary record Mr Davidson. Had one of your colleagues who agreed with my points taken the case, would Horwill have been banned?
I sense more inconstancy.
Round Two was all about the punching Kiwis. Kane Hames, Owen Franks and Hayden Triggs were all cited for throwing punches in their respective matches.
Hames went after Dominic Bird of the Crusaders towards the end of the game while Franks was cited for the same offence in the 10th minute of the match in Dunedin.
Triggs was cited for striking Stormers captain Duane Vermeulen in back play during the Blues game in Cape Town.
Continuing with Triggs, he was subsequently handed a one-week ban for the punch after receiving a red card from the referee.
Judicial officer Robert Stelzner (who dealt with all three citings) said: "I found the incident to have a low-range entry point which stipulates a two-week suspension.
"This was then reduced by one week due to Triggs' prompt admission of guilt, remorse for his actions and excellent disciplinary record in over 10 years of playing professional rugby.
He went on to say: "The applicable entry point for determining the seriousness of the offence was further informed by the existence of provocation and the fact that the player acted in retaliation"
To me, this looks like and extremely low entry point for such an action – punching is one of the biggest disgraces in rugby and if all these citings and judicial hearings are in order to stamp out such things – the extenuating circumstances are weak.
Provocation is not a reliable defence in a legal sense at all, and it is not a very strong mitigating factor either, for Stelzner to say that it was Triggs' retaliation that set the applicable entry point is shocking.
Although we are unsure what Triggs was retaliating against – I would say that for a punch to be a 'reasonable' retaliation, he should have been punched first (and then still, both players should be banned for lengthy periods as an example).
This sets a poor example and makes a mockery of the judicial citing process. It seems to go back on its core process of deterring players from ugly foul-play.
What makes this more of a mockery is that the same officer then handed down a five-week ban for a punch to Highlanders prop Kane Hames.
Stelzner said of the Hames incident: "After taking all relevant facts of the incident into consideration, I found the incident to have a mid-range entry point which stipulates a five week suspension.
"Several aggravating factors for the case included the injury to Bird and a deterrent for this type of conduct occurring in the game, resulting in a two week increase to the sanction.
"This was then reduced by two weeks due to Hames' remorse and prompt guilty plea for the incident."
This is a complete turn-around! Now Stelzner is talking about using this as a deterrent just because Dominic Bird bruises easier than Duane Vermeulen?
The inconsistencies over the two weeks have shown that having different Judicial officers is problematic as they have too much discretion – but then, even having the same person working different (yet similar) cases still leads to farcical results.
Currently, Owen Franks' hearing has not been concluded, but it will be interesting to see what comes out of that because no matter which way Stelzner goes, it will be inconsistent with one of his past decisions.
By Darryn Pollock