There is no getting away from it whatsoever – the last four days have been an incredibly damaging time for Rugby League, a sport that is already very self-conscious about its own image.
The punch(es) that Ben Flower handed out to Lance Hohaia on Saturday evening were felt all around the world, with a whole host of mainstream media suddenly becoming very aware of Rugby League, albeit for the wrong reasons. Every time a radio or TV has been switched on, the word ‘Flower’ has been a buzz word for people to get their teeth to stuck into – whether we like it or not.
And whilst those who have very little affiliation with the game – yet are taking every available opportunity to shoot it in the head – are now left in no doubt that Rugby League is a game for thugs, it is up to the game to use this moment as a watershed moment. League has had controversial moments in the past – let’s not pretend it hasn’t – but more often than not, the game has bounced back strongly to set the trend in disciplinarian matters.
The way all parties involved in the fallout from the incident – be that Wigan, St Helens, the RFL, and even Flower and Hohaia themselves – is commendable, and reinforces to those who know the sport that Rugby League is a classy game. The incident has been dealt with swiftly, and the RFL have sent a firm message out to everyone that Flower’s actions were unacceptable for a game that is trying to alter its image.
Hopefully, that matter has now been emphatically put to bed after Flower’s suspension on Tuesday night. He has accepted his suspension, and it has brought to an end one of the most unsettling matters in recent history. But it was far from the first incident to send an ugly message out this year – indeed, there have been a fair few which should make the RFL realise that a tough stance on discipline has to be taken once again.
Without delving too much into the issue, there was a rather unsettling video from Wigan’s pre-season tour of Australia and New Zealand emerge recently, which will have left some worrying about what is happening on the training paddock in terms of challenging any potential opponent. It isn’t just one particular club, either; trawling back through the RFL’s disciplinary archive for 2014, you remember just how many ugly moments we’ve seen.
So, where does the game go from here? Does it continue to hide under a rock, or does it make a stand, and be loud and proud over its toughness on incidents like this?
What we have been presented with here is a glorious, glorious opportunity. Whilst many will no doubt think this is an unfortunate incident for the image of the game – who knows, they may be right – those at the top of Rugby League must now get their house in order. That isn’t just Super League; it’s everyone. Steps have been taken to get tougher with discipline and the image of the game, but it is clear after Saturday that we aren’t there yet.
The game showed on Tuesday that it will not tolerate such actions on a field. Some have tried to justify the punishment as weak by comparing it to incidents in other sports, but that is inaccurate and unfair to do. The cold, hard facts are this is the longest punishment issued in the Super League era – so in terms of sending out a stern message, the job has been done.
There is little doubt that what Ben Flower did was unacceptable. More people than ever have now taken a sudden interest in Rugby League – even if it isn’t in the way we wanted. If the game is proactive ahead of the 2015 season, then believe it or not, that moment of madness at Old Trafford can actually be manufactured into a defining moment for Rugby League.