The IRB does care about the rules. But which rules exactly?

I read Wynne Gray’s column in the Herald yesterday and agreed with most of what he said.  His column supported a lot of coverage over the last week suggesting that in this Rugby World Cup the IRB has demonstrated a clear bias against the smaller unions, most obviously via the scheduling arrangements and the $10,000 fine handed down to Samoan wing Alesana Tuilagi for wearing a non-approved mouthguard.

The prevailing view is that the IRB favours the larger unions that deliver the revenue, while undermining the smaller unions that require the investment.

I’m not sure I agree that this is true, and I also think there’s a more alarming conclusion that can be drawn. Perhaps the real issue is that the IRB has more concern for the rules of the event than it does for the rules of the game.

Think about it.  Two of the IRB’s biggest calls in relation to this event have been to fine a player for wearing an incorrect mouthguard and to insist that a group of commentators be referred to by their first names, not by their nicknames. Remember that?  That was when the IRB insisted that TJ, Nisbo, Kamo and Coops must only be referred to as Tony, Grant, Ian and Matthew while commentating during the Rugby World Cup.

This is simply the IRB playing to its strengths.  Because it certainly appears from the outside that the key strength of the IRB is officious administration.

I imagine the IRB has a very large (and very happy) team of people responsible for developing and communicating guidelines to which all participating RWC teams must adhere.  (For the 2003 event this document ran to 199 pages, and it’s difficult to imagine it’s had much of an edit.)

You can bet that the detailed rules governing approved mouthguards were covered in these guidelines and that Samoa received them.  So from the IRB’s perspective the rules of the event were communicated and it’s clear a player broke them. So that’ll be $10,000.

But contrast that with the two England coaching staff who were caught illegally changing the ball prior to conversion attempts in the game against Romania.  There’s equally no question that rules were broken.  The RFU admitted this as part of their investigation of the incident that it shared with the IRB.  But England’s punishment for breaking the rules?  The two coaches were banned from the touchline for their pool match against Scotland. No fine. No points docked. No meaningful censure at all.

So the simple conclusion is that the IRB has one rule for rich, potential tournament winner England and another for struggling, probable early loser Samoa.

But I think that’s the wrong comparison. This isn’t about rich vs poor, Six Nations vs Pacific Nations, potential winner vs honest trier. All it shows is that the IRB is more concerned with the rules of its event than it is with the rules of the game.

England wasn’t fined because it didn’t break the IRB’s rules. Samoa was fined because it did. And unfortunately in the eyes of the IRB, that’s a far greater infraction.

The IRB does care about the rules. But which rules exactly?

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