Black Ferns captain Lesley Elder says the style of rugby seen in an incident where a would-be tackler knocked a ball carrier out cold in the Bay of Plenty last weekend cannot be tolerated.
In what the referee called the "ugliest piece of foul play" he had seen in 12 years, a ball carrier was struck in the face with a "sickening swinging arm tackle" and knocked out before he hit the ground, the Bay of Plenty Rugby Union said in a statement yesterday.
The injured player was airlifted to hospital with a suspected fractured cheekbone. The tackler was banned from playing for a year.
The incident was part of a weekend full of ill-discipline in school and club rugby matches in the Bay region, with 11 red cards and one sighting shown.
Elder, who joined the Black Ferns in 2015 and is also the union's women's player development manager, said the incident was "not good enough".
"To see that style of rugby being played is not on.
"Those days of rugby are gone, behaviour like that can put people into real trouble and risk."
Elder supported the stance taken by the union and the disciplinary action, and felt for the injured person as well as the referee, who was a volunteer.
While rugby was a "passionate" activity and a contact sport where mistakes sometimes happened, incidents like this were not okay.
"We can't tolerate it anymore; it's just not good enough."
Elder, 34, once fought her way back from what could have been a career-ending on-field injury to play for the Black Ferns side that won the 2017 Women's Rugby World Cup. She became captain in 2019.
She said it was already difficult getting young people to play the game, and behaviour like this would not encourage people to take up the sport or contribute to a family-friendly environment.
Sport Bay of Plenty's sports manager Nick Chambers said the recent incidents were
"Violence of any sort involving players, spectators or officials has absolutely no place in sport," Chambers said.
The organisation applauded Bay of Plenty Rugby for its swift responses and zero tolerance for the behaviour.
"It goes without saying that sport should be an enjoyable experience for everyone, particularly for tamariki and rangatahi who model their behaviour around them.
"We all have a role to play in creating a great sporting environment, regardless of whether we're on the field or watching from the sidelines."
In another rugby incident last weekend, a misconduct charge was brought against a senior player who verbally swore and abused a referee after the full-time whistle.
The player was suspended for 34 weeks.
All cases are heard by the Bay of Plenty Rugby Union's Disciplinary Committee, made up of experienced community-based volunteers.
Community rugby manager Pat Rae, who has worked at Bay of Plenty Rugby since 2015, said he could not remember a ban as long as 52-weeks being handed out.
"Had I seen the incident described in the red card report, it would've been the worst piece of foul play I'd ever seen on a rugby field.
"When you're swinging a stiff arm, clocking the guy on the side of the face, and he's unconscious before he hits the ground — that's bad," he told NZME.
"In a weekend where there were 74 games of rugby held across the region, from under-11 to premier men's and everything in between, it's a shame that a handful of games had really poor player behaviour."
Rae said punching, stomping, shoulder charging, dangerous tackles and referee abuse offences were all deliberate acts and were all "totally avoidable".
He said last week was so busy for the committee, more volunteers were brought in and multiple hearings held over three nights to get through them all before players' next matches.
The union did not identify where the incidents of poor behaviour happened in the region, or which teams or players were involved.
Rae said the maximum length of time a player could be banned from playing, according to New Zealand Rugby laws, was a lifetime ban for physical assaulting a referee.
Other ban lengths included 260 weeks for using threatening actions or words towards match officials; 208 weeks for grabbing, twisting or squeezing the genitals, intentional contact with the eyes or biting; and 104 weeks for striking with the head.
The union was trialling a new way of dealing with disciplinary matters in the junior and secondary school space, based on restorative justice principles.
Tamariki and rangatahi admit their behaviour as detailed in the referee's report, the matter is then referred to a Whānau Group Conference involving the player, his whānau, the referee and coaches, managers and school teachers in charge.
The conferences work to ensure the player accepts responsibility for the actions and suitable actions or tasks are put in place where the player can learn.
While it was still early days, Rae noted some "interesting outcomes" already.
Players were more willing to be held responsible for their behaviour and they have also self-imposed voluntary stand-downs, he said.
"The really cool aspect though has been how the players have problem-solved the reasons behind their offending and have come up with strategies to learn how to become better players."
Verbal apologies to teammates for letting them down were non-negotiable, and letters of apology were mandatory where other players were involved.
He said other self-imposed penalties included washing jerseys, setting up the fields, cleaning the changing rooms, and running touch in the matches they voluntarily stood down from.
This process is borrowed from the Canterbury Rugby Union - with low re-offending - with permission from New Zealand Rugby.
Organisations or individuals who need support with fostering positive sporting environments can visit sportbop.co.nz/leadthecheer or contact Sport Bay of Plenty.