Paul Lewis on sport

Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: Brainless sheep attack Lam

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Pat Lam. File photo / Brett Phibbs
Pat Lam. File photo / Brett Phibbs

Presumably, the faceless morons who made racial slurs surrounding Pat Lam's custodianship of the Blues under the cowardly anonymity that social media often provides were happy when they saw Lam struggling to maintain his equilibrium this week.

Lam, a man under real pressure, struggled to hold back the tears when asked about the slurs. In answering, he had to gather himself as he was trying to express how disappointing it was to face such stuff after the sacrifices his parents had made to come here from Samoa.

Here's the measure of Pat Lam - last week in this newspaper, rugby writer Gregor Paul wrote an opinion piece saying it was time for Lam to go.

Most people would either lick their wounds in private and/or harbour a grudge at such a sentiment, even if it might not be expressed.

Lam contacted Paul the same day, facing up to the article as written - explaining, backgrounding and discussing issues, leading to an insight into the man.

Not for Lam the soft option. He has bravely faced up to media and public questioning (and abuse) throughout the Blues' whole sorry season so far.

I have known Lam for many years, off and on, and while I could not claim to know him well, I remember him as a player and as a man always ready to front up and answer honestly.

You cannot help but admire him for that. I know plenty of people in sport who do not do likewise; who prefer to dodge and hide in difficult circumstances. That honesty has been mirrored in his players - people such as Keven Mealamu and Ali Williams owning up to their faults and Mealamu even did the unthinkable, criticising team-mate Piri Weepu for turning up for duty unfit and undercooked. Weepu himself admitted as much.

So, okay, the coaching job has gone wrong and we in the media have been on Lam's case as much as anyone.

Lam is enough of a pro to know that, as he said, we are doing our job - no journalist worth his or her salt would try and paper over the cracks apparent in the Blues this season.

But at least our names are attached to what we write. It may be that a flow of negativity over the Blues and their coach encourages the lunatic fringe to shuck off the restraints of civilisation and trot out old prejudices sprinkled with racial nastiness, flavoured with bile.

The contention that the Blues are playing dumb rugby because Lam is an Islander (born in New Zealand) and because much of the team is Maori and Polynesian is as distasteful as it is errant. As Lam himself says, there is no mention of anyone's ethnicity when they are winning.

There are times when I fancy this little country is growing up; that we - particularly in Auckland - have conquered the urge to fall back on stereotypes and old ways of thinking.

Then this. When will we ever learn? Lam is an outstanding individual of principle and transparency. Would that we could say the same about those who abandon the professional for the personal.

THE CALL to ban shoulder charges in rugby league seems to have fallen on barren ground. As it should - it is one of the last gladiatorial elements in one of the last gladiatorial sports.

Amid all the fuss over Ben Te'o's shoulder charge on young Wests Tigers prop Matt Groat, the comments of Groat's father Peter have been overlooked.

"He shouldn't get off, and if he does, it will only open the door up for others," Peter Groat said. "I don't think the shoulder charge should be removed from the game. I also don't think there was any intent, but you have to stop attacking the head. If you do take the chance and hit a player's head, you have to pay the penalty."

That's it exactly. Te'o clearly did not mean to lay out Groat cold with his shoulder charge. Just as clearly, he needed to be punished for getting it wrong. If a player damages the head of an opponent - even accidentally - there must be a reckoning.

Making sure players are penalised for hurting the opposition is necessary, if only to ensure that players using the shoulder charge get their technique right.

Like anything else, the shoulder charge has good and bad exponents. Ben Matulino of the Warriors has a good, accurate shoulder charge. So too did Sonny Bill Williams when he played league. Far better to replace league's silly "on report" dimension with the immediate absence of the transgressor from the field - an instant penalty which adds an extra element of risk to the shoulder charge if the ball-carrier's head should be struck.

But it is important to keep the charge. Injury and concussion will always be a part of contact sport, no matter how much we try to dilute it. There's a balance to be gained between safety and spectator appeal.

Rugby, for example, has sanitised itself to the extent that it has successfully removed some of the gladiatorial elements which paying customers like to see.

Rucking has gone. No longer does a player infringing at the ruck get dealt to by the court of the opposition, delivering a verdict and sentence on any player who unlawfully held on to the ball or otherwise illegally interfered with the supply of ball to those in possession.

It used to be a badge of honour for a player to take off his jersey in the changing rooms and reveal lines of sprig marks - gained either in defence of the ball or ending up on the wrong side of the ruck.

It was an effective way of self-policing the game, provided the thugs did not hijack the unwritten law and use rucking as a way of attacking or even disabling opposing players.

There are safeguards which are fair enough - not being permitted to tackle a player leaping in the air to catch a ball is one; the spear tackle another. However, you get the feeling sometimes that rugby has so earnestly pursued its health and safety concerns that it has effectively neutered its own excitement factor.

Some thrills and spills surely have to be part of the game.

- Herald on Sunday

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