If there is one rugby incident that left South Africa – and particularly the Bulls – with an overwhelming feeling of injustice this season, it’s the Akker van der Merwe-Schalk Brits episode.
After Van der Merwe hit Brits with a flying headbutt in a ruck before punching him in the face several times earlier this season, the Bulls hooker retaliated and made contact with the Sharks front-rower’s head with the back of his hand. Both were red-carded, but Brits copped a four-week ban, while Van der Merwe got three weeks for his leading role in the altercation.
Yep, that decision was ridiculous. And while you can argue that Brits shouldn’t have retaliated, it’s pretty hard to imagine anybody – nevermind a contact-sport athlete – taking blow upon blow without bothering to lift a finger in return.
Sure, you can argue that the recipient should just exercise some self-control and not retaliate (even if the instigator comes at him like Israel Folau to “sinners”). And sometimes the payback shot on its own warrants a card.
But just like the instigator in the Van der Merwe-Brits fight should have been given heavier punishment than the retaliator, it should be the case with every other similar incident, and not just when it comes to post-match sanctions, but on the field as well.
I’d go as far as to say that the player who delivers the first blow should get red (if it’s to the head), while the retaliator shouldn’t see more than yellow, even if he also connects his opponent’s face. But that could cause things to escalate, and if the retaliator only gets a yellow for handling the instigator’s face like a speed bag, that wouldn’t paint a very bright picture either. Besides, it would immediately take away from the “anything to the head is dangerous” principle. But, at the very least, the harsher sanction post match should go to whoever started it, regardless of how squeaky clean his record is and regardless of how intense the retaliation is.
Besides, how much sense is there in banning one player until next Christmas for a headblow, for example, while another doesn’t even get a finger wag for elbowing an opponent in the face? Consistency.
When Melani Nanai decided to do just that to Dillyn Leyds - with the ref standing in close proximity, by the way – nothing came of it. Nothing came of an act that World Rugby apparently deems dangerous and unacceptable.
And even if Leyds had decided to return the favour with a good ol’ how you doin’ to the face, Nanai should have received a red card and, say, a nice four-week Super Rugby holiday, while Leyds’ ban – even had his retaliating blow been exactly the same, or worse – shouldn’t even have been half of that, in addition to his red card.
I understand that we shouldn’t make room for or excuse exchanges with the fist, but the current situation just isn’t fair. Just ask Brits.@WynonaLouw