Former Preston Grasshoppers player and ex-director of rugby at Lightfoot Green writes every week for the Evening Post
The continued fallout from Joe Marler’s alleged “gypsy boy” comment to his Welsh opposite number Samson Lee continues to paint rugby union in a poor light.
Whilst the comments themselves were crass and poor, the fact that the incident was not put to bed quickly and decisively is another embarrassing example of the sport allowing its image to be tarnished through weak disciplinary decisions.
What was said during the Marler/Lee incident is almost irrelevant in this context.
But if your viewpoint is that the whole thing is an example of political correctness gone mad, then you are also missing the point.
Quite simply, the image of rugby union suffers when incidents of this type become a circus of conflicting statements from different bodies.
Neither the Six Nations Committee or the Professional Rugby Players’ union (RPA) are doing anything more than protecting either their cosy club mind-set or their own self interest with their short-termist statements on the matter.
RPA chief Damian Hopley, said Marler is “being hung out to dry” by an “excruciating media witchhunt”.
This may well be true but that has resulted from the lack of real action being taken at the outset.
That the RPA have come to this issue late to defend one of their members shows touching loyalty.
But their silence and lack of comment as to what behaviour they expect from their members at the outset of the row – or even now once they’ve dared to raise their head above the parapet – now renders their arguments impotent in the ongoing furore.
Let’s be clear. rugby union does – when it suits – like to take the moral high ground over other sports when it comes to issues surrounding respect.
So it is strange that the game is being so indecisive in the Marler/Lee incident, whilst also continuing to allow increasing levels of unsporting behaviour on the pitch to go unpunished and thus chipping away at one of the game’s core values.
The continued goading and needling between players has been on the increase for sometime.
Too often we see players sarcastically patting or applauding opposition players after a mistake is made, with a few comments thrown in for good measure.
I cringe every time I see this behaviour.
The players who indulge in the practice come across as nothing more than playground spivs.
They act as wind-up merchants, knowing that they are protected by the fact that the opposition will face greater sanction for retaliation.
As with everything, the behaviours you see from elite players then drip down the grades with this insidious behaviour now evident at every level.
The governing body World Rugby has clearly defined the game’s core values, and states that inherent in everything we do should be our values of integrity, respect, solidarity, passion and discipline.
These then underpin the vision that rugby union is a sport for all, true to its values.
I therefore have to say it disappoints me that the Marler/Lee incident was initially dismissed as “banter” by those who should have known better.
For that is a word that leaves me cold.
For usually when something is qualified as “just banter” it is usually anything but.
For banter is the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks.
But like “sledging” in cricket, there is nothing playful or friendly – and certainly not amusing – in rugby’s current form of banter.
No what we are seeing far too often on the pitch is more akin to premeditated intimidation arising from clear direction from the training paddock.
I therefore do not buy the flimsy excuse in the Marler case that the comments were made in the heat of the moment.
After all, was it only during the match that Marler had suddenly become aware of Lee’s ethnic roots?
No, this type of incident has been coming for a while and that it has not been nipped in the bud previously is disappointing.
That the “heat of the moment” should be an accepted defence, merely shows how weak the governance in this area has become.
The subsequent apology should not have been seized on as a ‘case closed’ sound bite. No, that should have served only to reduce the punishment applied.
It may be unfair to make Marler a scapegoat for a greater ill within the game.
However, this incident was high profile and a strong response to it would have come at an opportune time for the sport.
The fact that it so far hasn’t is an opportunity missed and essentially provides tacit approval for the disease that is banter to continue to spread.