Belfast Telegraph

Giving serial-offending England captain Dylan Hartley red card for life might help save rugby

Rugby chiefs must act before another player dies on pitch

By Jim McDowell

It's confession time. Rugby is, in a way, my religion. Well, one of them, anyway. But now I'm finding it difficult to keep the faith. Especially on a day like today.

Judgment day, in essence, for one Dylan Hartley, until now the captain of the barnstorming England rugby union team that has notched up a record-equalling 14-game unbeaten run.

So hooker Hartley should be riding on a sporting high.

Instead he looks likely to be hammered by a disciplinary panel that runs rugby's biggest club competition -  the European Championship - for another horrendous incident of premeditated, pernicious and potentially deadly dangerous act of foul play.

That, of course, was his savage swinging arm haymaker that put Ireland and Leinster flanker Sean O'Brien out of Friday night's game against Hartley's club Northampton.

There is now talk of Hartley being banned at today's hearing, of him perhaps missing some of England's upcoming Six Nations Championship campaign and the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand next year.

He shouldn't just be banned from those.

He should now be banished for life from the game I, and millions of others, love.

His deplorable and demeaning disciplinary record - or, more accurately, his record of rank indiscipline - demands no less a draconian measure.

Consider. Over the past nine years, since April 2007, his career has spanned a spectrum of sporting 'crimes': from eye-gouging to elbowing to headbutting. He was also banned for biting and punching our own Ulster players Stephen Ferris and, the man who justifiably should lead the Lions against the All Blacks, Rory Best.

His total suspensions, before today's hearing, tally up to 54 weeks - more than a year!

And some of those assaults, if they had been committed in the street, in public, rather than on a rugby pitch... well, Mr Hartley may have ended up not in front of an EPRC disciplinary committee, he would have ended up in the dock of a court of law.

As it is, his case now begs the most crucial question this noble game has faced in its 193-year history.

Has this once Corinthian and amateur game been corrupted and corroded by professionalism?

Is the spirit of the game being sucked out of it by the money-grabbing god of Mammon?

Does not only the end justify the means, but does money, now big money, justify the end?

In other words, has the game of rugby fallen victim to that age-old cliché of sport - soccer, American football, corruption in cricket - 'win at all costs'?

Was that exemplified, brutally, in the appalling incident where Ballymena's Mark Best was lifted - off the ball too, it must be said - and 'spiked' head first into the ground in the recent All Ireland League match against Buccaneers?

And again, the Belfast Telegraph has obtained another series of photographs, equally graphic and concerning, of an incident during a Ballymena RFC game.

This time the home team were playing Old Wesley from Dublin.

#And the pictures portray a Ballymena player being hoisted high, his heels in the air, in a maul... and then hitting the ground, hard, landing on top of his head.

Both terrifying incidents underpin the caring and, again, justifiable concerns over head injuries and concussions occurring in a game where 'hits', for instance, or even worse, 'crash ball hits', have become the accepted lexicon for what used to be called, purely and simply, tackles.

It was those 'hits', or rather a series of them, which caused, according to a coroner, a rugby tragedy back at home here, in the case of  14-year-old Carrick schoolboy Ben Robinson.

The coroner ruled at his inquest that the youngster died of 'second impact syndrome'. In other words, concussion.

And just consider the row now erupting over the Wales winger George North, rightly taken off the field so often recently, but allegedly having been sent back on by his Northampton club last week... after being knocked out.

Plus, it must be time to take a penetrating look at the pedigree of rugby, where the game starts, at its genesis, in our schools. Now, this is not meant to denigrate in any way the role of the teachers and coaches who give of their time to take teams at school level.

But there are questions to be asked. Like 'bulking up' of schoolboys from the Medallion stage - that's Under 15s - up to First XV (and the coveted Schools' Cup) level.

In some schools 'bulking up' means pre-dawn, pre-class pumping iron in the gym, supplemented by bulking up of another kind, pumping supplements into their diets.

All of this, again, smacks of the aforementioned American football.

The crucial difference here, though, is that there is some measure of protection in that ultra-physical form of football played across the Atlantic.

Now, in the increasingly overtly physical form of our own oval ball game, our players - even at schools' level - are not kitted out in helmets and wads of padding and body braces from their necks over their spines and down to their waists.

That is not to say that grid iron is not now also haunted by the spectre of concussion. It is, and, from its ex-players' perspective, increasingly so.

I, like many other rugby men, was lucky.

I played the game - or, at least, turned up - for 36 years, from I was 11 until I was 47... when a helicopter falling from the sky blew the whistle on that.

Like many other rugby men, too, rugby was a big part of my life, and helped give me a life.

But what I fear now is that this modern game - with cascading cash, 'crash hits', commercialism and, all too often, a callous disregard for the rules (ie Mr Hartley) - is not worth a life.

That's why today the disciplinary panel dealing with Hartley should do the right rugby thing.

And ban him for life.

Although, again like many other lovers of our great game, I doubt that it will.

  •  Jim McDowell played for Ulster Schools and captained Ulster Juniors. And, 'for the record', he points out his two sons still play, and enjoy, rugby

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