The coverage surrounding the Harlequins’ ‘Bloodgate’ incident seems to have grown exponentially in the last fortnight.
Naturally the story has made the rugby section of every major newspaper, but the most interesting development has been the increasing personal and social commentary with regard to the central protagonist, Dean Richards.
What is now being examined and commented on is Richards’ ‘motivation’ for Harlequins’ deliberation and systematic cheating. Rather than ‘what’ he did, it is now more a question of ‘why’ he did it.
Psychologists and human behaviouralists would have a field day because the discussion throws up many fundamental questions about human nature.
What makes a person take a particular course of action even when he or she knows that it is wrong?
At what point does victory become so utterly important that the end justifies any type of means?
The concepts of right and wrong and the justifications for ones’ actions must have a bitter irony for Dean Richards. His former life was as a policeman with a mandate to uphold the rule of law and order.
Against his background, the debate takes on even more relevance.
In this specific case it was fake blood capsules, but it could equally apply to acts of thuggery like eye-gouging, or tactical cheating like faking an injury in the front row, to ensure that uncontested scrums are introduced.
For many of us ‘old-school brigade’ the advent of sledging might be well considered a subtler form of cheating.
Subtle? Who am I kidding? When an opposition player spits out something either incredibly offensive or condescending, it takes the greatest self-control not to react or lose concentration.
At the macro-level, the issue that rugby authorities are faced with is wether, due to professionalism, rugby is losing its soul?
All of the examples cited above, are points on the cheating continuum and in the majority of cases they either go unpunished or simply cannot be punished.
In fact, very often you could argue that such offences actually end up being rewarded.
The sledging might result in you wanting to make that tackle so badly that you stay offside — penalty and three points; the uncontested scrum negates an opposition advantage; taking someone out off the ball may cause them to leave the pitch.
Remember rugby’s own ‘Hand of God” moment, when Neil Beck slapped the ball out of Peter Stringer’s hands into Leicester’s scrum in the middle of their “22”?
Who could argue that the flankers’ brazen cheating so late in the game did not make a major contribution to the Tigers’ Heineken Cup victory.
The fact is that cheating is an endemic feature of the sport of Rugby Union.
Before we get too moral and idealistic, however, it is clear that in any sort of team game where there is close quarter action and contact, living on the edge of the law will always be a key feature.
The legendary All Black flanker, Richie McCaw, has spent a marvellous career right in the thick of it at the breakdown.
Many would argue that the majority of this time has been on the wrong side, either slowing a ball down or snaffling a turnover.
Indeed, an openside flanker, if he is doing his job properly, should probably expect to be penalised at least once in a game.
Therefore we have to expect that this level of law-bending will always go on and is a necessary evil which adds to the thrust and parry of the game.
This constitutes one of the biggest challenges for the rugby referee, because he knows in advance that both sides will try to get one up on the other through fair means or foul.
The players know that he knows, but try nonetheless and so it goes on.
No wonder then, that in-depth analysis of the referee’s tendencies and pet hates plays a vital role in match preparation. The 16th man could turn out to be the most important person on the pitch.
Nowadays, in professional rugby, tries are more and more at a premium and the margin between victory and defeat has become narrower than ever.
The Harlequins’ loss by one point to Leinster in the Heineken Cup quarter-final is a case in point.
Therefore, putting on a cynical hat, you have good grounds to argue that victory boils down to who can cheat the best rather than who can produce the best rugby.
Some of the best teams have been doing it for years. How often do we see teams who are so intent at defending their own tryline that they would much rather kill the ball and give away a three-point opportunity or run the risk of a yellow card?
The starting premise is that the referee might be strong enough to sin-bin one player, but will he have the bottle to send three or four to the bin? Highly unlikely and teams take advantage of this fact.
The successful Leicester team of the 1990s had some wily old characters who were highly adept at this, while closer to home, Munster, the standard-bearers for the last decade, are past masters at it.
The look of shock-innocence on the face of Alan Quinlan feels like a recurring memory, I saw it so often.
Rugby authorities must open their eyes to the fact that cheating, whether subtle or explicit, is a core part of the game.
The ‘Quinn’s case is an easy one on which to adjudicate. What is far more difficult is the decision about the cheating ‘continuum’ and at what point does acceptable become unacceptable?
Wherever disciplinary bodies deem this point to be, consistency is a pre-requisite, punishment must fit the crime in order to provide some level of deterrence for the future, but, above all, far more time and money must be invested in the arbiters of the game.
A decent referee is rapidly becoming the most valuable human resource in rugby.