Wynne Gray 's Opinion

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: Truth is that retribution is rugby's dying art

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All Blacks captain Richie McCaw is pulled from an altercation against Australia. Photo / Getty Images
All Blacks captain Richie McCaw is pulled from an altercation against Australia. Photo / Getty Images

Watching All Black skipper Richie McCaw elbow-jolted this year by a Springbok, then kneed and butted by a Wallaby seems standard practice.

The flanker is such a menace that he provokes opponents of lesser ability, sending them beyond boiling point.

What was unusual was that, after Deon Greyling and Scott Higginbotham inflicted their brutality on the All Black skipper, his team-mates stood around and watched.

There was barely any menace from them and certainly none of the retribution Wayne Shelford inflicted at the 1987 World Cup when he knocked Welsh lock Huw Richards into another planet. Somehow Shelford escaped the officials' wrath, perhaps because he was protecting team-mate Gary Whetton.

It was similar a few years later when Steve McDowell smeared parts of French prop Laurent Seigne's nose across his face and escaped any punishment because Australian ref Sandy McNeil felt the Frenchman deserved his punishment.

These were acts which added to the legend of enforcers like Kevin Skinner and Colin Meads who had gone before in the black jersey, men who fought and scrapped for every inch in their turf wars. Television coverage was scant, judicial panels flimsy and only the most blatant acts of thuggery (sometimes) were punished.

There were unwritten rules on foul play. Punching was legitimate, rucking was effective but kicking a player was a no-go zone. Many post-match hours were spent socialising with the opposition amid verbal replays and questions about how they got away with their violence.

In one trip to the UK in 1993, midweek skipper John Mitchell was twice warned for dangerous play against the Scots Development XV - but nothing more. A week later, Jamie Joseph crunched England halfback Kyran Bracken's ankle but escaped official censure.

Skipper Sean Fitzpatrick used to damage opponents regularly - and sometimes team-mates - but he put much of that down to his clumsiness and strong bones.

As authorities moved to clean up the game and drew up binding documents on process and punishment, most players became more stealthy with their retribution.

There were exceptions like Springbok prop Johan le Roux and Richard Loe whose respective chomping and eye-gouging rubbed them out of rugby for some time. Coaches began to admonish their troops for too much thuggery and famously, the 1999 All Blacks were ordered not to retaliate before the French gouged, punched and grabbed 'family jewels' in their famous turnaround World Cup semifinal victory.

That trend has continued. There have been rare acts of revenge as coaches have watched the sort of stress teams have to deal with when a player is sin-binned or sent off. Three All Blacks were binned against France in the 20-20 draw in 2002 and three felt a similar wrath from referee Alan Lewis in 2005 when he yellow-carded Tony Woodcock, Neemia Tialata and Chris Masoe.

Luke McAlister's binning for interference was another costly talking point in the dramatic 2007 World Cup quarterfinal defeat by France. Wales discovered a similar fate in last year's tournament when captain Sam Warburton was sent off for a tip tackle in his side's narrow loss to France.

The All Blacks had many dramas in that competition - but no one was sent to the cooler. They still had an enforcer or two. Lock Brad Thorn could look after himself - and any opposition nuisance - while Jerome Kaino was unbending in laying down his rules. They knew officials scoured television footage so were smart about delivering 'don't argue' messages.

Rucks and clean-outs were their areas of expression, where they could launch their frames and inflict stronger messages than a punch or a high tackle out in the open. They had some assistants who were also useful in delivering arm bars and trailing arms or holding their rivals down slightly longer in tackles.

But this season, there has been very little. Israel Dagg has been sin-binned twice for technical breaches, Brodie Retallick given an off-field yellow card and Tony Woodcock was the last miscreant after a team warning.

When McCaw was felled by Greyling, his team-mates stood around as though they were shocked. Halfback Aaron Smith was the closest and clearly not the right man to mix it but none of the forwards remonstrated. When there was a repeat episode in Brisbane, there was also scarcely a scuffle.

Teams watching those two episodes and wanting to find some way of disrupting the All Black rhythm might figure a bit more calculated biff is worth a crack - because it will be unanswered.

- Herald on Sunday

Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

NZ Herald senior rugby writer Wynne Gray has been covering the All Blacks for almost 25 years and has attended more than 230 All Blacks tests live for the Herald.

Read more by Wynne Gray

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