It would be easy to say the process around handing Michael Hooper a one-week ban was ridiculous from start to finish…but the farce is still far from over.
What a joke the whole episode has been. Not only has it underlined the inconsistency in rugby's judicial system – once again – but it highlights the need to eliminate the dependence on individual opinions.
Here's a quick recap of events so far:
The Wallabies flanker was cited for 'striking' Pumas fly-half Nicolas Sanchez in their Rugby Championship clash in Mendoza on Saturday.
Fair enough, videos of the incident suggest that a citing was definitely in order (despite what the likes of Phil Kearns will tell you). It turns out that it was an open-hand slap rather than a proper punch but, even if Sanchez milked the incident, Hooper was always going to be in trouble.
On Wednesday SANZAR announced that its judicial hearing needed more time to come up with a decision, and the verdict was delayed by a day. They didn't say why what should have been an in-and-out hearing needed two days, but we soon found out.
On Thursday, the flanker was handed a one-week ban by Judicial Officer Nigel Hampton QC, much to the bemusement of rugby fans around the world. Beyond the leniency of the ban, what really surprised was that Hooper and the ARU somehow managed to convince Hampton that Hooper was set to feature for local Sydney club Manly this weekend in a Shute Shield quarter-final against Ranwick. Manly conveniently named their team with just one player – Hooper – on the bench in the day between the adjournment and the final verdict.
You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out that team sheet was cooked up with Wallaby input. It's unbelievable that the story was bought at the judicial hearing. It's inconceivable that – less than two months before the World Cup – Australia would let one of their stars players run out in a club game a week before the Rugby Championship decider, the first of this year's back-to-back Bledisloe Cup matches.
The Aussies had released a handful of players for the Shute Shield quarter-finals in order to give guys like Kurtley Beale some game time, but Hooper, who featured in almost every game for the Waratahs in a gruelling Super Rugby campaign this year, was never going to be involved.
So it's no surprise that SANZAR are appealing the judgment – and credit to them for doing so – albeit a little strange for an organisation to appeal against the decisions made by its own officers.
There's more drama ahead since the ARU are also set to counter-appeal…and the plot gets thicker.
This isn't the first time SANZAR have appealed against one of their own decisions. Back in March, South African Jannie Lubbe SC found Frans Steyn not guilty of making a tip tackle at his hearing a few days after the Sharks centre was red carded. The Appeals Committee, which featured none other than Kiwi barrister Hampton, overturned that ruling and slapped Steyn with a five-week ban. From being let off the hook to five weeks… that's a big jump.
Now the shoe is on the other foot because the committee that will consider Hampton's one-week decision in the Hooper case will be chaired by, you guessed it, Mr. Lubbe.
The saga exposes a number of problems with the way disciplinary matters are handled in rugby in general, not just at SANZAR.
There is clearly a problem when Ireland prop Jack McGrath's knee to the back of Georgian lock Konstantin Mikautadze in a Barabarians game in March goes completely unpunished a few months after France lock Pascal Papé got banned for ten weeks for his knee to Ireland loose forward Jamie Heaslip's back. Would McGrath have faced the music had the game taken place outside of Ireland?
I'm not accusing the Irish – nor the South African or New Zealand judicial officers named above – of being intentionally biased. There are countless cases of inconsistency – in every nation – that could be used to illustrate the inconsistency that continues to plague the sport.
The problem with these individuals is, well, that they're individuals. You know what they say about opinions – everyone's got one. And opinions seem to be vastly different from one judicial hearing to another. It's all become a bit of a lottery.
What rugby needs is a move to a centralised judicial 'court' that handles all cases instead of the ad hoc appointments of individual judicial officers. Citings should never be referred to an individual but should pass before a panel of 'judges' that can come up with a balanced decision.
The laws around sanctions also need attention. In the Hooper case, how does being denied the chance to make a cameo appearance off the bench in a regional club game qualify as punishment for foul play in a Test match? Bans should be dished out according to games, not weeks, and with a minimum level set for the games in question.
Until we have greater consistency in the judiciary, rugby will continue to be plagued by unnecessary controversies.
By Ross Hastie