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Time For Woodward To Close The Spin Dept. ?
6 June 2005, 7:21 am
A bite is an instant red card, and once proven, there can be only one course of action. The tackle on O'Driscoll is nowhere near that clean-cut.
A fortnight ago, all there was to do was yawn and turn attentions to the next game. By far the most debate-worthy topic of the Lions tour was the murderous vocals emanating from the pre-match singers.

It was nothing to do with the line-out.

There was plenty of debate over what the team should be for the first Test, but deep down inside everybody knew what it would be. Beyond that, it was just another professional tour. No stories, not much controversy, not many tries, and limited fun. Just ask Otago's schoolchildren.

All that has now changed, thank goodness. Now we have a real series on our hands, with some real controversy to enjoy a beer over!

Clive Woodward is facing pressure like never before to get it right for the second Test. The winds of change are the ones whistling down the streets of the windy city as Jason Robinson and Martin Corry prepare to join up with the dirt-trackers, but who else might the ever-more experimental coach jettison from the top ranks?

The Lions are roaring with fury and pain, after the perceived spear-tackle on their rugby deity of a captain by his opposite number and a helper, and the escape from censure of the black-clad protagonists.

Danny Grewcock has got off with a ludicrously light punishment for the downright sick offence of biting, a punishment so far out of kilter with IRB guidelines that it is debatable whether the disciplinary panel really believes he did it.

The pass from Umaga for the second try was forward, according to a number of Lions fans who really ought to have noticed the horse galloping away on the horizon before trying to shut that particular stable door, and if there are not at least twelve Welshmen in the next Test team, the Lions may never score a try again.

The matter at the forefront of everybody's mind for now though - as a result of some good old-fashioned Al Campbell spin away from the real issue: the dire Lions performance - is the Brian O'Driscoll 'spearing' and the shortage of recriminations thereof.

The person who should be most in the spotlight for the adjudication of the tackle is touch judge Andrew Cole, who was no more than a metre from the tackle when it happened. Cole's officiating style is non-confrontational to say the least, but had there been anything seriously untoward, there was nobody in the stadium better-placed to see it, nor anybody better-qualified to deal with it.

There was no flag though. Not even a consultation with Jo l Jutge. It was not a hidden bite at the bottom of the maul either, it was in daylight. The tackle was an ugly one, and it was off the ball - both elements of foul play and worth a stern ticking-off in themselves - but there is a world of difference between a spear-tackle and a physical confrontation gone wrong.

What caused Andrew Cole to keep his flag down?

Maybe, just maybe, the tackle was not as bad as it has been made out to be, or that there was some form of mitigation, e.g. the meaningful step forward into the contact situation by O'Driscoll before Mealamu and Umaga struck?

'Spear-tackling' is quite an accusation to make. A spear-tackle involves lifting you opponent off the ground, heaving him over to one side and forcing him downwards headfirst into the ground. There is a very definite action required by the tackler's body to do this, and while the tackle looked pretty ugly, neither Umaga nor Mealamu looked to move in a manner that would see them actually spear O'Driscoll and pile in with a shoulder.

The rhetoric from a number of Lions fans has been a lot more repulsive than the tackle itself. Emails have been flying around urging vengeful maiming of Tana Umaga, a player who plays no more on the edge of the game's physicality than Martin Johnson did, and lest we forget, ignored an overlap in a Test match to help a pole-axed Colin Charvis.

Umaga is known among referees for his quiet respectability and adherence to rules on the pitch, so much so that his one angry quip at Peter Marshall after a hefty tackle - "It's a physical game, mate, not bloody tiddlywinks" - was met with real surprise. Mealamu's disciplinary record is just as clean, as is his general adherence to the rules.

Citing commissioner Willem Venter has examined the same video footage everybody else. Both he, in the aftermath, and Cole, at the time, decided that there was no case to answer. That is two world-class, experienced and neutral officials who have both been ideally-placed to adjudicate on the matter, and who have the full backing of the IRB.

Venter has not denied the existence of foul play, merely that the players would not have been sent-off for their actions - the 'red-card test' as advocated by the IRB. That is the key difference to the disciplinary treatment of Danny Grewcock. A bite is an instant red card, and once proven, there can be only one course of action. The tackle on O'Driscoll is nowhere near that clean-cut.

Whatever the ins and outs, the matter is closed until or unless the New Zealand management take action within their own camp. Until such a time, Sir Clive Woodward would do very well to forget producing the spin that has seen him concentrate his post-mortem exclusively on this one incident, and concentrate on choosing a team based on form and a more developed game-plan than the one that dissolved in the Christchurch rain. Brian O'Driscoll's health and the recriminations from the first match are now out of his hands. The Lions fortunes are not. Yet.

By Danny Stephens - Plane Rugby.

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