Amongst the thrashings of a penultimate week of Super Rugby, an old favourite is limbering up. If Saracens are unbeatable in Northern Hemisphere club rugby, their equal and opposite are the Canterbury Crusaders. Many have wondered who would win if they ever got the chance to play each other. Funny how these things work out. Of course, Crusaders and Saracens go way back and used to fight over things far more important than rugby.
Lining up for Crusaders this weekend was a player called Sevu Reece. Fijian born, he was raised and schooled in Hamilton, on New Zealand’s north island, and is now a resident of Canterbury. He is currently Super Rugby’s top try scorer and only twenty-two years old. He plays rugby of a sort that gets the likes of Christian Cullen saying ‘Gee, he’s good,’ and if you’ve been following what he’s been doing this last eighteen weeks you will have the same question as I did: shouldn’t he be playing for the All Blacks?
But there’s more to it. Reece should have been playing for Connacht this year. Should have been lighting up the Pro 14 in the way he has Super Rugby. But in the early hours of July 1st 2018, on a street in Hamilton, Reece got drunk, physically attacked his then-girlfriend and left her with some nasty cuts and bruises. He was arrested, pleaded guilty and was granted a discharge in view of the fact that the forthcoming move to Ireland would help his family. But in light of the case, the Irish Provincial side removed the deal. He was out of favour with Waikato’s Super Rugby side the Chiefs and looked like he was spiralling out of rugby altogether before the Crusaders took a chance.
“He’s a young man who has made a mistake and it’s a serious mistake,” said Brad Mooar, the Crusaders Assistant Coach, when asked about handing a contract to Reece at the end of 2018. “But at the same time, once we discussed that and had the conversation with him and (were) able to go deep on that and eyeball each other, we can see the genuine remorse.”
Remorse is an interesting idea. How does a word that conjures up such admittance of failure play with professional sportsman? To play rugby you need to stand tall, tough it out, leave it all out on the field, regret nothing… Remorse? There is no place for remorse. Or is there? It seems to be the motivating factor here. The All Blacks have a pretty famous ‘No Dickheads’ rule that the previous actions of Reece certainly contravene. But what about ‘Used to be a Dickhead’? Do they take those? There is a growing vocal contingent in New Zealand suggesting they shouldn’t. Knocking a lady around is pretty distasteful as far as dickhead deeds go. But what is more important – the mistake, or how you deal with the mistake?
What of Stuart Olding? An exile to south-west France was endured after he found himself acquitted in the notorious ‘Belfast rugby rape trial’ and out of a job with Ulster. He ventured abroad to bury himself in rugby in Pro D2, France’s second tier, with Brive being the team who offered him a spot. Olding deeply regrets the events of that fateful evening, the way his interactions on social media with other men involved in the case have portrayed him, and in an interview in August of 2018 said, ‘They (Brive) took me under their wing and I settled in very well and I just want to repay them for that.’ And he has done. Brive have won promotion back to the Top 14 (beating Grenoble in a playoff) and this week, at the club dinner, Olding was crowned ‘Player of the season’ by the fans.
I’ve heard players talk about almost losing the opportunity to play (through injury, misdeed or being dropped by a club) and how that motivated them to focus more than before. I should think there is a fair amount of that in play here, too. But it also comes down to management. You won’t be surprised to hear Jeremy Davidson cited by Olding as a big reason for the way he has settled and his form. The former Ireland international and British and Irish Lion is the head coach at Brive and is as canny as they come. The Crusaders management team have experience in getting the best out of ‘broken’ players and will have applied some crucial interventions on Reece, too.
It is interesting to note that things have not worked out so well in France for Olding’s former Ulster team-mate and similarly acquitted, Paddy Jackson. He signed for Perpignan having been released by Ulster but their campaign in France’s Top 14 has been disastrous. Certainly not a place conducive to getting the best out of a man as damaged as Jackson. He is on his way back to the UK and the Gallagher Premiership with London Irish in an attempt to build again, but his signing has not come without controversy. Cash Converters replied to some social media posts about the interaction of the players involved in the Belfast Rugby Rape trial claiming it didn’t want to be involved with London Irish any longer. “As a company, we are committed to the highest possible standards when it comes to our investments in any sponsorships and collaborations,” read the tweet. “As a result of a detailed and thorough review of our support for London Irish, we have decided to discontinue our association with the club.”
Irish moved to distance Jackson from the decision, by suggesting that it came a long time before the Ireland international was announced as signing for the club. But others are circling. It is reported Diageo, the parent company of Guinness who sponsor London Irish, will meet club officials this week to discuss “serious concerns regarding their (London Irish’s) decision (to sign Jackson), which is not consistent with our values”. Declan Kidney is a very good rugby coach but it will be interesting to see how he and his management team at London Irish get the best out of this situation and indeed Jackson.
Here are some questions: does rugby have a responsibility to rehabilitate Reece, Jackson and Olding? Or is the opportunity to operate on the world stage, playing a sport you love, too great for those who have found themselves in such a mess? Do we become a better society allowing people to find a way back from the brink or should we expect more from people in positions of sporting power? Should we be moving on: giving others a chance who haven’t transgressed? The talent pool is wide, should we spend our time and effort supporting those who can behave?
I also wonder how remorse would play for Israel Folau? For if you upset people, even if you do so without meaning to, or without an understanding of why they would be unhappy, remorse should always be your first step. It is not a position of weakness. It is actually one of power. One of acceptance; of the position you are in, where you want to be, and what you need to do to get back there. A place from which you can ultimately move forward; the first step back on to the path on which you should have remained.
I hope rugby can hang on to Jackson. Provide a platform to rebuild the man, like it did Olding and Reece. I would also like it to hang on to Folau. We will have to see. The latter may prove most difficult. Some things are more important than rugby.