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Bill On... Making Rugby Safe

Can we ever make rugby completely safe? Perhaps it is a stupid question, but CJ Stander’s red card at Newlands brings this conundrum to the forefront once again. Should there always be someone to blame when there is a dangerous situation or an injury on a rugby field?

While I don’t wish ill on anyone who plays the sport, nor do I take any pleasure in the sight of a completely prone and unconscious Pat Lambie reeling from an impact which he had no time to react to or prepare for, my answer is no. There is not always blame. People will get hurt playing rugby. Physical collisions will occur and sometimes the physical forces in legal or inadvertent contact will result in injuries. It is an unfortunate fact of the sport.

However, referee Mathieu Raynal clearly disagrees. One of his primary responsibilities is to the safety of the players under his charge and the process and time spent reviewing the incident with the TMO can only have been influenced by the sight of Lambie, clearly seriously injured, being fastened to a stretcher, surrounded by the South African medical team. However, does that do an injustice to the player whose conduct is under review? The ratio of slow motion replays versus those in real time, exaggerates the amount of time Stander had to consider his actions and make the timing of his jump appear far more cynical than it actually was. I support the use of the TMO in its aim of making the right decision more of the time, but the circumstances like we saw on Saturday actually creates a situation where we counterproductively come to the wrong decision in an instance where if there wasn’t a TMO we would have had the correct outcome.

CJ Stander was essentially punished for not being able to transform his 114kg frame into a pillow as soon as it became clear that impact with a defenceless Pat Lambie was imminent. And so in a strange kind of way, the disgrace that comes with a red card for CJ Stander on a personal level only heightens the impact of a famous Irish win. They did it at a disadvantage, and an unfair one at that. How we love to operate with a chip on our shoulder. And if there was a team in world rugby who you’d chose to play against with 14 men, it would be these paltry Springboks.

For the longest time, they have been one of the least flexible and least tactically aware teams. Plan A is to run through you. Plan B is to try Plan A even harder. And it became very clear in the second half that they knew not how to make their numerical advantage count. From overuse of the short side to Willie Le Roux overplaying the ball at every opportunity (clearly feeling the pressure of being the primary playmaker) to the strange selections of Lionel Mapoe and Frans Malherbe, neither of whom look like anything near Tests standard players, South Africa were found wanting in nearly every department.  

However, famous victory or no, let us not lose the opportunity to actually have the debate about safety in the sport. And in my humble view, the only way we can move forward in a sensible way is to admit that 100% safety is not going to be achievable and there need not necessarily always be someone to blame. Let’s hope that on mature reflection, the result of CJ Standers disciplinary hearing will reflect that conclusion.