As George North hit the deck on early Saturday evening and laid there motionless, many questions were being asked. Most it seemed centred around the Welsh winger’s cognitive health. Understandably so; he looked unconscious, for not the first time in his career, and although he was cleared to resume playing by a medical professional, people watching had enough reason to suspect concussion. But we have to assume the doctor who cleared him made the right decision with the all the information presented. What happens now is down to an independent review panel and we must respect that. That is why it has been set up, to analyse the processes used to get players back on the field. Only they can find any misdemeanour and subsequent blame. We’ll leave that there, for now.
But beneath all of that, I began to ponder over another issue. If George North was being allowed to continue to play the game, how was Adam Thompstone only spending ten minutes in the bin? His role in proceedings was pretty conclusive. He had upended North mid-flight; driven his shoulder and wrapped his arms in an attempt to tackle a man in the air and not shown a duty of care as to where or how the Saints winger landed. Elliot Daly, red carded the weekend before for a similar incident whilst playing for England against Argentina, will have looked on with interest.
The Daly and Thompstone incidents are different. Thompstone was stationary, Daly was moving; Daly was looking skywards whereas, when he turns, Thompstone is only looking at the oncoming North; but both took men out in the air. There are countless other examples of this happening in rugby and varying degrees of punishment. And I’m not here to debate the implementation of the laws of our beloved game (you’ll be glad to hear).My question is this – could either men, Thompstone or Daly, do anything about their predicament?
I have heard people argue that they could and indeed should. Rational and sensible arguments that revolve around players needing to use peripheral vision and employ a duty of care to anyone who is airborne on a rugby pitch. In a sense, I agree. I know where these people are coming from and why. But in doing so, I feel people are not fully appreciating what else must be going on.
Let’s look at the Thompstone incident first. The ball bounces, as it so often tends to on a rugby pitch, awkwardly for the Leicester man. He is heading one way and the ball bucks back over his shoulder and into the arms of North. Thompstone is more than aware of who is bearing down on him and that he is the last line of defence. Now, and this is what I find so tough on the Leicester winger, what people are asking is that Thompstone resist every rugby playing instinct he has in his body. As soon as he knows North might get the ball, every sinew in his being is engaged in stopping his opposite man scoring. His mind has spent years training itself for such a situation. If he lets North past, if he allows a potentially match defining score, his playing stock will fall drastically. He is in front of a home crowd, playing in a big derby game. I don’t want to sound dramatic, but if he doesn’t put in some sort of defence, if he just lets North through, his livelihood could be at stake. He turns to find his opposite number, a winger of international quality, with the ball in his hands but, and this is the crucial bit, mid-leap. In a split second, Thompstone needs to assess the situation and pull out of making a tackle because he has a duty of care to his Premiership colleague. That’s not happening. That’s a ridiculous thing to ask a professional sportsman to do. It is a akin to asking a professional golfer to pull out of his opening drive at Augusta, half way through his downswing, because a spectator has walked out in front of them. It is like asking a pro boxer to pull his title-winning punch because that final blow might do some lasting damage to his opponent. I don’t think you can expect sportspeople, who have put that much into their careers, with all that is riding on their decision, to show that great a duty of care.
The Daly incident is perhaps less instinctive but I still have sympathy with his situation. Players run into each other all the time, without it being intentional: crossing, mistimed moves, collisions between players of the same team chasing the same ball. Criticisms of Daly suggest he should have looked where he was going and what was going on around him. I just find this a little bizarre. Daly is attack-minded, that is what he is on the pitch to do. As the kick goes up from Youngs, he only has one thought. Every voice in his mind is saying he has a chance of catching the ball and becoming a hero; make it and any suggestion that he is not a viable option for England falls away; turn his scrum half’s box kick into an attacking advantage and Eddie Jones will be calling him ‘son’. People suggest Daly should be able to make the decision that he was unable to compete on his approach. I don’t think he knows that he can’t compete until he gets there, at which point, Senatore is on top of him. Daly is a very bright lad, more than aware of the laws and what will happen if he upends someone in the air. He isn’t trying to get sent off or cause harm; he’s trying to catch the ball and he makes a mistake. He runs into someone he didn’t realise was there until it was too late. Six weeks suspension (reduced to three) for making a split second error of judgement. Watching the incident, I feel he was close enough to catch the ball had Senatore not been there. So really, what that judicial sentence is telling Daly is not to attempt to catch the ball; but chase and allow the opposition to safely take possession of the ball; and then he can make the tackle. I think you’re asking Daly to suppress his attacking instincts, to relinquish any chance of brilliance before he’s had a chance to see if it’s on. I think you’re asking Daly not to be the player he is. I think you’re asking the impossible.
Now I know what you are all going to say. And I agree. I’ve regretted the horrendous injuries suffered. I’ve winced when former players discussed the problems they now face because of head injuries. Like you, I feel we need to make the game safer. However, this type of incident is not going to go away. We will continue to see players taken out in the air. You can brandish as many red and yellow cards and cite until your heart is content; these incidents will continue to take place. Any sentence handed out to those found guilty is there to try and prevent repeat offences. Not just for the perpetrators, but for those who find themselves in similar positions. But every weekend, there is another one of these situations. You watch, they will continue to happen. And that is because rugby players have a greater duty of care to their own prospects than that of their airborne counterparts. They feel the risk is worth taking; they want to be the person making the catch or try saving tackle. Their instincts do not work like we would want or need them to. And ‘after the event’ punishments aren’t going to change anything. And here is the clincher: if put in exactly the same position again, I can’t see either Daly or Thompstone acting differently.