IF World Rugby thought the formal reprimand, £70,000 fine and demand for an apology they issued to the Scottish Rugby Union earlier today would draw a line under the squabble which erupted towards the end of the pool stage of last month’s World Cup – when it looked like Scotland’s crucial final pool match might be called off due to the impact of Typhoon Hagibis – then they are likely to be left disappointed.
Murrayfield was saying very little on the record in the aftermath of the judgement, but a tweet issued at lunchtime made it clear that they are unlikely to take their medicine quietly and raised the prospect of the matter going to arbitration.
Getting the issue in front of the Court of Arbitration in Sport [CAS] – the Swiss-based quasi-judicial body established to settle disputes related to sport – will not be straightforward. It will require World Rugby’s cooperation, which they will be reluctant to give as that would effectively mean putting their own judicial process under the microscope, so it is only likely to happen if public pressure compels them to do so in order to demonstrate the robustness of their ruling.
There is certainly more than a suggestion from the general tone and some of the wording in the 48-page ruling issued this morning that World Rugby’s Disputes Committee may have struggled for perspective in this case.
Ultimately, what this whole thing comes down to is whether the SRU were justified in arguing publicly that the game should be moved if the stadium in Yokohama was rendered unplayable. The Disputes Committee concluded that this was “egregious behaviour, sitting towards the most serious end of the misconduct spectrum.” This is pretty hard to swallow when lined up against other possible instances of misconduct such as racism, homophobia, doping and match-fixing.
Elsewhere, the Disciplinary Panel’s conclusion that SRU Chief Executive Mark Dodson did raise the prospect of legal action is subjective and flimsy. It is based on their inference that his description of the SRU being “collateral damage” and suggestion that was “not something we will be prepared to sit back and take” constituted an explicit threat.
A lot of the judgement deals with whether the SRU’s argument that the game could and should be moved had merit, but surely that is not the point: the question here is whether they are entitled to make that argument.
Protecting the brand
Admittedly, on a sliding scale of sanctions against misbehaving sporting organisations, this barely merits a mention against the monster fine and points deduction imposed on Saracens earlier this week, but Scottish Rugby may feel duty bound to oppose it.
Just as they made a very deliberate decision to engage the press on that Friday afternoon in Yokohama in an effort to pressurise World Rugby into considering an alternative solution to a 36-hour impasse as part of what they saw as their fiduciary duty to their team, supporters and sponsors – so now they will feel the need to clear their name [brand] which has been very deliberately linked by World Rugby to a lack of empathy for the human suffering caused by Typhoon Hagibis.
There are significant commercial and sporting implications for the SRU in being cast as the villains of the piece – just as there is real benefit for World Rugby in being held as above reproach for the lack of contingency planning which led to major matches of huge commercial value and sporting significance being called off.
The SRU clearly don’t believe they did anything wrong. Quiet diplomacy was going nowhere, then when Italy’s match against New Zealand was cancelled two days out – with players being told on the training pitch and whisked out of the country virtually before they’d had a chance to process the information – it was decided to make it clear that Scotland would not go as quietly.
It sets a worrying precedent if World Rugby are allowed to deem themselves as being beyond challenge on issues of such fundamental importance.
Digging their heels in
That is not to say this was the only possible path the SRU could have taken. The ruling references a settlement offer made by Rugby World Cup Limited to the SRU after disciplinary proceedings had been instigated, which was turned down by Murrayfield.
“The key components of the offer from RWCL were that the SRU must apologise for its conduct and make a donation to the Typhoon disaster relief fund in Japan. The SRU reply suggested alternative wording which included a mutual expression of ‘regret’ from both parties, and no apology.”
It feels a bit like two bald men fighting over a comb.
Dodson doesn’t like losing and doesn’t do backing down, but it is clear that on this occasion he has come up against an equally stubborn opposition – and this lot have more clout.
We all know how Scotland’s World Cup campaign ended. The brunt of the storm missed Yokohama, so rather than being hijacked at training and sent packing as was the fate of Italy, Gregor Townsend’s team were able to go down fighting on the field of play against an excellent Japan side.
That should have been the end of it. World Rugby chose to carry it on, but it takes two to tango – and neither side is going to come out of this looking good.