Fans flocked to condemn the inconsistent disciplinary hearing judgements handed down to Rob Simmons and Adam Thomson.
Rugby fans flocked to condemn the inconsistent disciplinary hearing judgements handed down to Rob Simmons and Adam Thomson this week.
Rugby has been building up to a moment like this for quite some time. Defining a fair suspension that will satisfy all parties is rare, but in the cases of Rob Simmons and Adam Thomson, the results of both hearings have been fiercely contested by both fans and media.
Simmons was originally handed a 14-week suspension by the IRB for a tip tackle of France's Yannick Nyanga. It was late, dangerous and off the ball and if the officials on the field had been able to identify Simmons as the perpetrator he may well have been sent off.
Despite having his suspension cut down by six weeks for “exemplary previous disciplinary record and his conduct at the hearing”, Simmons' ban however remains at eight weeks, nearly double the average for tip-tackle bans over the past two years based on the following examples:
One week – Francois Hougaard
Two weeks – Cooper Vuna, Carl Hayman
Three weeks – Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric
Four weeks – GJ Van Der Veize, Steve Shingler, John Afoa
Five weeks – Digby Ioane
Seven weeks – Bradley Davies
Deciding whether the Simmons tackle on Nyanga was obviously worse than any of those listed above comes down to the position of the player's head and the level of force into the ground, but when the average punishment is around four weeks, to originally hand out a suspension of more than triple that time period is hard to understand.
The recklessness of the tackle is not in doubt, purely the length of the suspension.
Tip-tackling remains an area of contention over a year after it was brought under the spotlight following Sam Warburton's sending off in the Rugby World Cup semi-final. It will continue to be examined ahead of the Lions tour next year, with British fans still infuriated at the lack of justice against Keven Mealamu and Tana Umaga.
Hours after the Simmons hearing, Adam Thomson was given a one-week ban for “stamping or trampling” on the head of Alasdair Strokosch, resulting a similar outpouring of dismay on Twitter except this time for the leniency of the punishment.
Thomson was originally sin-binned after making contact with the head of Strokosch whilst the Scot was stuck at the bottom of the ruck. It was not excessively violent, but there was contact, enough for Thomson to be punished.
With a previously unblemished disciplinary record at Test level and lawyer Owen Eastwood as part of his defence team, Thomson protested his innocence stating that the incident was “unintentional”, but the footage is difficult to ignore.
His ban remains at a single week rather than falling in the two-to-nine week lower-end range normally associated with stamping bans, of which the five week ban given to John Hayes for stamping on Cian Healy's face back in 2009 is an example.
Thomson's defence was clearly effective but when you strip away the context and watch the footage, one week appears remarkably light. Any time a boot makes contact with an opponent's head, you are playing with fire.
Suspensions need to be logical and fair, which is where the case of Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu comes into the equation. The Samoan was given a three-week suspension last season for tweeting about Saracens fly-half Owen Farrell.
The balance is wrong if a player can be given a longer ban for tweeting about another player as opposed to stamping on another player's head.
By maintaining the accuracy of the judicial system, the IRB can avoid the derision of the last 24 hours and prevent situations where CEO Brett Gosper has to announce on Twitter that the sanction against Thomson is under review.
Consistency is important and the IRB have to be careful with the precedents they set.
If Simmons eight-week ban is now the benchmark, how big will the next tip-tackle punishment be? And if players know that they will only receive one or two weeks bans for stamping on players' heads, then how much more dangerous will the game become?
Questionable decisions are emerging from disciplinary hearings far too often, to the long-term detriment of the IRB and its member unions' reputations.
In this high-profile month for the sport, greater accuracy is essential.
By Ben Coles