Loose Pass

Date published: April 15 2015

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with puzzling punishments, outspoken officials and a rather big birthday for the Baa-baas.

Rugby does not do itself any favours

The farce surrounding Nathan Hughes' successful appeal against a three-week ban and Jacques Burger's one-week suspension has done little to enhance the reputation of the English game's judicial system.

Wasps' Nathan Hughes was sent-off during his side's Premiership clash with Northampton for what was deemed a 'reckless' challenge on George North. He was subsequently handed a three-week ban although the ruling accepted that there was no intent.

The decision to ban the player and the severity of the sanction despite it being ruled accidental caused uproar and denied Wasps one of their trump cards for the biggest game of their season – their Champions Cup quarter-final against Toulon – that ended in defeat.

The pain of that loss will not have been eased by the decision to dismiss Hughes' suspension at an appeal hearing which ruled that there had been 'no act of foul play' and cleared him for an immediate return to action.

The appeal panel came to their decision having 'had the advantage of evidence not before the original panel'. Maybe the full written judgement will explain why this was not presented at the original hearing.

Then there is the matter of the timing of the original hearing. Hughes was sent off on March 27 and initially banned on April 1 but had to wait until April 10 for his successful appeal hearing.

In this modern age and with a game of huge significance on the horizon, why was this appeal not held via telephone or skype at the earliest opportunity, especially when this 'new' evidence came to light?

The anger at the treatment of Hughes and Wasps intensified when Saracens' Jacques Burger picked up just a one-week suspension for what was a clear and deliberate forearm to the head of Racing Métro scrum-half Maxime Machenaud during their Champions Cup quarter-final clash.

Crucially, the seven day-sit down means he is available for their Champions Cup semi-final showdown with Clermont Auvergne next weekend.

A three-week ban for a reckless but unintentional challenge and a one-week ban for a deliberate act of violence? Go figure.

Asking for trouble?

The disciplinary process is also coming under scrutiny on the other side of the world following Waratahs and Wallabies coach Michael Cheika's latest brush with the authorities.

Cheika's decision to approach referee Jaco Peyper midway through the Tahs' Super Rugby victory over the Blues last month was a little risky given his circumstances – the threat of a six-month ban continues to hang over him as a result of a suspended sentence handed down when he was found guilty of abusing a camera operator in South Africa last year.
Reports claim the 'Tahs boss felt compelled to speak to the officials to query the length of time the ball was being held in the scrum but even if, as reported, the exchange was 'short and polite', it should not have happened.
The meeting of coach and referee was clearly a violation of Law 6.a.7 – which insists that officials can only consult with each other during a game, but SANZAR have gone on record saying that Cheika has not breached Super Rugby's code of conduct.
Cheika has been branded a 'cheat' by some who have pointed to the wildly varying penalty count that swung in the Tahs' favour followed his half time head-to-head.
The Waratahs boss has since insisted he 'wasn't careless' that day but he clearly was when his actions could easily have been construed as misconduct and therefore left the Wallabies without a coach for this year's World Cup.

Hoskins has had enough
If the Cheika incident was not enough to turn up the heat on SANZAR, then South Africa Rugby Union president Oregan Hoskins has stoked the coals having reached 'wits end' with what he sees as an unfair judicial process.
The fact that such a high-ranking official – who is also World Rugby vice-chairman – has gone public with his frustration with what he sees as the harsh treatment of South African players and the relative leniency shown to Australian and New Zealand players will not go down to well in the World Rugby and SANZAR offices – but the alleged inconsistencies are certainly head-scratching to say the least.
Hoskins is not questioning the guilt of South African players such as Bismarck du Plessis (four weeks – kicking opponent), Frans Steyn (five weeks – dangerous tackle) and Jean Deysel (seven weeks – kneeing opponent) but what he, and many others, see as the mere 'slap on the wrist' given to the likes of James Horwill (one week – striking opponent), Liam Gill (two weeks – dangerous tackle) and James Broadhust (one week – kneeing opponent) for similar crimes. 

Clearly each case is different but most fans only deal in headlines, not the finer details of disciplinary verdicts, and these sanctions will appear arbitrary to many.

The vastly experienced Hoskins apparently 'did not intend to go to the media' with his grievances but will no doubt be aware of the value of being seen to echo the views of South African fans.

More surprising is his singling out of SANZAR chief executive Greg Peters who he suggests triggered an appeal 'of his own volition' that resulted in the escalation of Steyn's ban to five weeks after he had been cleared of any wrongdoing. 

That was an act of political warfare and as a result the next SANZAR meeting is set to be a frosty affair. Time will tell if that gathering provides Hoskins with 'the answers' he is demanding.

A whole lot of love

On a lighter note. What an incredible amount of affection accompanied the Barbarians' 125th birthday last week.

Social media was awash with congratulations and memories of the globe-trotting representative side formed by visionary WP Carpmael and his friends in Leuchter’s Restaurant in Bradford, England way back in 1890.

“One of the best two weeks of my rugby career,” recalled former All Blacks and current Toulouse star Luke McAlister in just one of so many heart-felt messages from players lucky enough to have worn the Barbarians' world-famous black and white hooped shirt.

“Thanks for keeping some of rugby's traditions alive,” wrote Sale Sharks' well-travelled lock Nathan Hines in perhaps a more telling tweet.

The team was formed with the strict instruction to ‘play the game without inhibition, enjoy rugby in the remoter regions and to share the good company of rugby men everywhere’ and has resolutely stuck to that tradition to this day – remember Steven Luatua's quarterback style lineout throw against Australia at Twickenham last year?

However, there can also be no doubt that the Baa-baas' longevity owes a great debt to 'the greatest try ever scored' against New Zealand at Cardiff's Arms Park back in 1973.

Cliff Morgan's legendary commentary of Gareth Edwards' score remains as enchanting as it must have been to those who heard it the first time these famous words were uttered into the microphone.

"Phil Bennett covering. Chased by Alistair Scown. Brilliant. Oh, that’s brilliant! John Williams, Bryan Williams…Pullin, John Dawes …great dummy! …David, Tom David…the halfway line…brilliant by Quinnell! … This is Gareth Edwards! A dramatic start! What a score!”

How the Barbarians must be the envy of the rest of the sporting world. Can another pastime boast such a brilliant ambassador for their game?

We – players, coaches, fans, governing bodies – must all ensure that support continues and they continue to thrive.

Loose Pass is compiled by former scrum.com editor Graham Jenkins