Everything is so serious nowadays.
COVID vaccinations! Death from sugar! Contact sport! The risk of living is suddenly so real and so great, there just isn’t enough cotton wool in the world to go round, and global warming has caused the shortage.
The fact that Lachlan Swinton has been so harshly judged and branded before turning 24 years old says more about society today than about him.
Virtue signalling has become such a trendy pastime that we have lost perspective when it comes to concussion in sport, and we have vilified players like Swinton when the game these days needs more of them.
Let’s be clear. Swinton is not a thug or mindless and uncontrollable perpetrator of violence. He’s a young man trying to forge a reputation who has made a few stupid mistakes.
Swinton hasn’t dropped an elbow into the nose of a defenceless Paul Carozza like Richard Loe did. He didn’t try to eat All Black ears like Johan le Roux either.
Sure, Loe and Le Roux are pretty nasty acts to follow, but brain explosions and dirtiness aren’t just limited to villains of the peace like those two.
Buck Shelford is an all-time great, spoken about in the same reverent tones as Richie McCaw. Known as much for his courage and skill, Shelford’s hardman reputation was secured before the 1987 World Cup triumph, when he had his scrotum stitched during a Test in France a year earlier.
But even Shelford had a few brain explosions. In the 1987 Rugby World Cup semi-final against Wales, for example, he came to the defence of lock Gary Whetton and knocked out Huw Richards with a single blow. When Richards came to, the Welsh lock was the one sent off. Shelford played on and eventually was knighted by the Queen.
Of course Shelford played in a different time, well before the sport became professional and medical protocols were developed. So let’s move on to the professional era.
Trevor Brennan of Ireland was so annoying that he even riled Toutai Kefu while playing against the Wallabies in the 1999 World Cup. Brennan and Kefu traded punches before they were warned, Brennan was penalised and the game got going again.
Admittedly, Brennan didn’t escape so lightly in 2007 when he received a life ban, later reduced to five years, for leaping into the crowd and punching an Ulster fan who had allegedly verbally abused Brennan’s mother.
Now that’s certainly hot-headed.
Brian Lima, another legend of the game, a man whose nickname ‘The Chiropractor’ is still celebrated, absolutely hammered Jonny Wilkinson high in the 2007 World Cup. It was a very similar hit to Swinton’s in the Bledisloe, and after very little deliberation the referee announced play on with a warning to Lima and a penalty given against him.
One of the greatest locks ever to play the game, Bakkies Botha, was yellow carded in his 2002 Test debut against France for stamping, an indiscretion that has nothing to do with timing and was worse than anything Swinton is guilty of on debut or otherwise.
Botha’s long-time teammate Schalk Burger was yellow carded for making contact with a player’s eyes in the second minute of a Lions Test in 2009. Notably that Test came six years after Burger debuted and long after it could be said he was a young man learning his trade, as Swinton is.
So where am I going with this historical comparison of hard men, dirty play, brain snaps and punishment?
First up, Swinton is no Richard Loe, Trevor Brennan or even Bakkies Botha. He’s a kid trying to create a reputation who has so far made too many mistakes.
All of Swinton’s mistakes as far as I can recall are down to timing and an excess of enthusiasm.
His sending-off in Brisbane in 2020 would have been a penalty and earnt a round of applause in 2010. There was no malice or intention, just as there was no malice or intention from Brian Lima when he caught Wilkinson high.
Swinton’s cleanout of Lachlan Boshier late in the Waratahs loss to the Chief’s last month was more stupid than dangerous. Boshier looked up unhurt and was probably as curious as all of us about whether the glancing contact with his chin would rub Swinton out.
It wasn’t like Botha’s yellow card for stamping when he debuted. It didn’t involve Burger-esque contact with the eyes. Yet Swinton is pilloried.
And that brings me to my next point: why are we so sanctimonious these days? We seem to enjoy signalling our virtue so much.
These sure seem to be the years of living dangerously, of our every action being a risk to life and limb. Has the risk of living, the risk of playing rugby, suddenly quadrupled in the last five, ten, 20 years?
The obvious answer is no, it hasn’t. But you’d think it by the way we talk.
The hashtag brigade are pretty good at whipping up fear and blowing up any semblance of balanced debate. If it is so simple to decide where lines are drawn and the repercussions for crossing them, why not welcome dissenting opinions?
An element of total risk aversion and sanitisation that has crept through society and in my view is poisoning rugby.
We hear so much from a handful of concussion campaigners and not so much from those who have different perspectives on how risk management may be implemented. Why not?
I’m already bracing for the outraged reaction to this article. People who don’t toe the line with the same opinions we see on social media are automatically abused or, worse, accused of being callous.
Don’t I respect science? Don’t I care about player welfare? Don’t I care about kids welfare?
Of course I do.
But with all the hysteria and vitriol surrounding issues like concussion in sport, the debate lacks a diversity of opinion.
Oscar Wilde said that diversity of opinion shows that work is new, vital and complex. Mark Twain noted, “It is not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse races”.
Is rugby really so much more dangerous than it was ten years ago? If it really is, and I have my doubts, then we need an appropriate and balanced approach to minimising risk.
We seem to have gone from awarding penalties and playing on to issuing red cards willy-nilly, ruining the reputations of young players who would have been celebrated in the not distant past.
Swinton is more a victim of our hyperbole than his own hot-headedness.