Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have no doubt seen or heard the name of Wigan Warriors’ prop-forward Ben Flower an awful lot over the past week. While the sport of Rugby League and its governing body in this country have acted quickly to rightly condemn the incident in question and hand out appropriate bans for both players involved, the wider coverage of the affair has been somewhat troubling for long time fans of the game.
In truth, the game in question was always going to be extremely physical. The rivalry between Wigan and St Helens is one of the fiercest and well contested in the sport, and the atmosphere inside Old Trafford replicated exactly that. The match started frantically and there was an edge to the play that hinted that something beyond the realms of acceptance may occur at some stage during the contest. The players should have known better and concentrated on the task of winning the game in hand, rather than getting caught up in any adrenaline fuelled running battles.
Rarely, if ever, has Rugby League been so heavily discussed and scrutinised by the wider public in this country, and instances where minority sports become major headlines are few and far between. The main issue of contention has centred around Ben Flower’s second punch on Lance Hohaia two minutes in to the Super League Grandfinal, the competitions showpiece event. Since then, there have been calls for police action to be taken, and Flower to receive a lifetime ban - none of which has come from anyone particularly au fait with the sport.
Phrases along the lines of “…had that happened in the street” and “…what if that had happened in football” have been used liberally and redundantly. A lot of what goes on in Rugby League wouldn’t be acceptable in the street. It’s a sport where using your palm to fend off an opponent in the face is encouraged. It’s a sport where using your shoulder to hit and tackle and opponent is applauded. Rugby League isn’t for everybody, and there’s a context to what happens on the field that only people who have a long standing knowledge of the game can really buy in to and get to grips with. Coming in to the sport with fresh eyes, and a lack of experience of how the game is played is a sure fire way to miss the point and the appeal.
There has been a perfect storm of factors surrounding the incident which has propelled a match that is usually covered by most major newspapers in under five-hundred words in a nondescript part of the sports section directly on to the back page. A concoction of a slow news week and and international football break gave some journalists the oppertunity to capitalise on societies need to feign outrage in unison, opportunistically launching in to think pieces about the culture of Rugby League and the character of Ben Flower, coming to their own independent conclusions about how both could be aided.
To those who know and love the sport all year round - rather than when the need for an opinion laden article or tweet has arisen - the incident was unfortunate, shameful and dealt with impressively and fairly. What it wasn’t was a shocking example of Rugby League’s thirst for violence, or an example of something indicative of a sport that needs mending. To remove all doubt, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the sport, and lazily drawing comparisons between it and others when the time suits isn’t going to lead to some radical reformation.
A large contributing factor to just how big of a story this has become is the circulation of a Vine that, by its very nature, only showed the smallest possible segment of the incident possible. Clipped to only show the two punches thrown by Flower, the provocation in the build up to it was nowhere to be seen. As is the way with the internet, a head of steam was built up only having seen part of the story, and Ben Flower trended across the country as public enemy number one.
What people who had only seen a single vine missed - which is the majority of people who were “shocked” and “appalled” - was the catalyst of the fight, which saw Lance Hohaia go out of his way to run full speed in to Flower in an attempt to make the best possible connection between his forearm and his opponent’s jaw. That, just like it had been for Leeds Rhinos’ centre Joel Moon just weeks beforehand, is a calculated, cowardly act that results in a straight red card. Had the connection been better, as was intended, Flower would have been the one in a heap on the floor, rather than the other way around. This, mysteriously, has been consistently overlooked.
Ben Flower, however, is obviously far from blameless. His first mistake was to retaliate by completely losing all composure and striking out. Had that been the end of it, it’s likely the incident wouldn’t have become what it since has. Fights are an unfortunate part of Rugby League, and are dealt with when they happen. However, his second mistake, and the biggest of all, was failing to recognise that he had knocked Hohaia out cold at the first time of asking, and proceeding to mount him prone on the floor, and strike him a second time in the head.
Nobody can defend him for that moment of madness, and nobody has attempted to. Flower deserves every single day of his six-month ban, and the thirteen games he’ll miss will eat in to a significant portion of both his international and club career in the immediate future. The difference of opinion arises between people who think a condemnation and hefty ban is an adequate punishment, and those who have called for police intervention and full review of the sport.
The sour taste for most League fans is that those dissenting voices aren’t coming from inside the game. Having people question the integrity of your sport and the goings on within it based on a knowledge of the game either a Vine, or at most, one match a season long isn’t an ideal situation. Football fans and writers get annoyed when Rugby Union uses their disciplinary system as stick to beat players who protest to the referee with and take an artificial moral high ground, so how is it suddenly an acceptable practice when a smaller sport is subject to such a level of uncontextualised, uneducated analysis from those with such a less than basic knowledge of the game and the way in which it is governed?
If you compare the attitudes of what are usually football writers in Oliver Holt of The Mirror and Paul Hayward of The Telegraph - who promoted a hyper-critical sensationalist rhetoric including such slapdash accusations as “sociopathic” and “steroid culture” alongside the laughable sentence “look, I don’t watch much Rugby League…” - to that of key figures inside the game, you’ll see a stark contrast. St Helens chairman Eamonn McManus, of the club Flower committed his offence against, had this much more reasoned and considered take on the event:
"We must assist him in any way that we can and accept him back into the sport. There is a person behind the player, and I am reliably informed by all that it is a good one. He must know that from all. Lance Hohaia certainly feels that way towards him also. The sport of Rugby League should not be judged by this event, but by how it deals with it.”
Eamonn McManus seems to understand that one swallow doesn’t make a summer, and that although in isolation the incident that took place in regrettable, there should be no wider conclusions drawn from it. Martin Offiah, a former Rugby League international, was much more blunt in his summation of the event, tweeting: “Second punch Flower threw was over the top but in RL if you forearm somebody in the face you can’t complain if he clocks you one”. Unlike from those clearly new to the sport, there has been no witch hunt against Flower from inside Rugby League, just regret that the incident took place and a reasoned reaction to the man at the centre of it.
As unforgivable as the second punch itself has been some of the vitriol directed toward Flower on social media in the days following the final. Once a positive tweeter and strong Rugby League presence online, Flower has been forced to close down his Twitter account in light of sustained abuse and several cases of people sending him graphic death threats. Treat and labelled as he has been in the press, people buying in to that too heavily and taking matters in to their own, somewhat emotionally unstable hands is almost par for the course in this day and age, which is a thoroughly regrettable consequence of the level of coverage this has received.
Ben Flower and Lance Hohaia have been appropriately banned for their parts in a regrettable incident, and the rest of Flower’s career especially will always have that red card as a shadow close-by, no matter what he goes on to achieve. Before long, once the fuel from the fire has died down and those desperately seeking a figure to demonise have found their next target to scream bloody moral outrage at have once again forgotten about Rugby League, the sport will revert back to the minority status it’s held for decades. Rugby League will adequately govern itself just as it always has done, and those who do wrong and deviate from the rules will be punished appropriately, again, just as they always have been.
Certain sports aren’t for everyone, and when one is suddenly propelled in to a spotlight in front of a majority of people who aren’t aware how the game is played without prior knowledge for context, it’s no surprise that isolated molehills will be made in to controversy filled mountains. Rugby League won’t change, and nor should it - but perhaps those who have decided to take momentary interest and comment on it without a reasonable basis from which to do so might think twice in future before feeding in to a sensationalist rhetoric without having seen the full picture, and instead take their cues from those in the know, rather than those looking to take advantage of a sport they hold no interest for in exchange for website clicks.