There can be a fine line sometimes between being served an injustice and getting a dose of your just desserts.
I believe the ever-combative (and there will be some tender-jawed opponents advocating stronger words, you can sure) Bulls outside centre JP Nel is a current case in point.
Sport 24 Chief writer Rob Houwing writes that Nel has been banned for four weeks under Sanzar citing procedures — albeit with the right of appeal, which he is making use of — for his swinging arm “tackle” on the Sharks’ veteran fullback Stefan Terblanche at Absa Stadium on Saturday.
As things stand, the powerful, 96kg Worcester-born customer misses two seismic Vodacom Super 14 matches for his franchise: this week’s semi-final at Loftus against the multi-champion Crusaders and the showpiece game the following week should the Bulls progress.
With Nel’s midfield partner Wynand Olivier injured and in a race against time to be involved in the knockout phase, his banning is an inconvenience the Bulls could have done without: he is a well-paid professional rugby player and, if in sound physical health, it is not unreasonable to assume all your experienced players will be in the mix for your red-letter games.
Now Nel is not. Nor for the first time, either.
Let me make this quite clear: I thought the four-week suspension was severe. Indeed, for much of this season I have often shared mounting South African anguish about the severity of foul-play censure against players from our Super 14 franchises, in comparison with punishments (or even laughable non-punishments) meted out to certain Antipodean counterparts.
There has been hypocrisy and inconsistency.
But then we also need to be careful not to channel our dissatisfaction misguidedly into blind sympathy for transgressors – the principle, surely, must be even-handedness in citing judgments, not a blind eye to spiteful, often cowardly incidents that do the game’s morality no good.
The pertinent question is this: was JP Nel simply an untimely victim of his own, rather thick dossier of doubt in the area of sportsmanship? Do you only “get away with things” up to a point, and then suddenly some chickens come home to roost?
I have watched the Terblanche incident over and over. Nothing will dissuade me from my view that the potential jaw- or cheekbone-cracker warranted sanction – one, maybe two weeks. So that would take care of the semi and the final anyway; perhaps we shouldn’t get too emotional about the four-week sum.
Do I have a beef with JP Nel the rugby player? Not in the slightest. Indeed, the big No 13 appears to have added skills to his repertoire that were not always evident in his earliest first-class days.
He has always been an honest donkey-worker, line-straightener and a decent defender; this year he has revelled in the Bulls’ particularly slick, fast-paced use of their three-quarters, especially at their highveld stronghold.
Nel has shown illuminating acceleration, taken important half-gaps or even the fuller brand, and off-loaded judiciously on key occasions to truer gas merchants outside him.
But I am afraid to say that “serial offender” is an expression hard to de-link from the man in terms of that zealously swinging, often bulkily-strapped right arm of his.
It has pole-axed too many rival players for us not to assume Nel has a spiteful streak in him, or at least a passion that burns to unacceptable levels of ferocity.
I have revisited online, as one so conveniently can these days, various video tales from Nel’s past, or studied prior citing verdicts against him. There is no lack of either material.
Only in last year’s Super 14, the same player got a one-match ban for a spear tackle on another Sharks player, Frans Steyn. The previous week, he was found not guilty after the Crusaders match over another alleged swinging-arm offence.
Then there is a clip online of a Currie Cup match at Loftus, where Western Province fullback Gio Aplon bobs and weaves his way through challenges in trademark, light-as-a-feather fashion.
Suddenly his progress is cut short: kaboom! You’d think a difference in weight of 20kg-plus would mean a conventional, legal tackle would do the trick nicely, but the pile-driver that ceases his activity and sends him crashing to the unforgiving deck is JP Nel’s swinging right arm to the head. Familiar?
Headache of migraine proportions
You’ve got to hand it to the Bulls bloke: as much as he’s game to bully a scarecrow, he’s proved that he’ll “canvas” any comer if he gets the chance: in 2007 he sat out three weeks after giving no less a specimen than the Waratahs’ formidable Rocky Elsom a stiff arm-induced headache of migraine proportions.
Nel was quoted afterwards thus: “I’m extremely disappointed with the ban and have been shattered by the length of it.”
I’d be interested to know whether he’s considered un-crumpling the statement for use in the latest instance — or whether he’s clever enough to deduce that it might look just a tad foolish to do so.
If you trawl through rugby chat forums and the like, you will notice that even within the ranks of fervent Bulls supporters, there are definite clusters of anti-Nel activists.
Here’s one from Rugbydump.com: “As you can see … JP likes to wear sufficient arm protection, which no doubt helps when you smash someone in the face with it.”
And this from Keo.co.za: “JP does this crap consistently; he freaking destroys our game. (And) I am a Bulls supporter!”
Nel has been dealt a harsh hand on this occasion. But there are enough aggravating whiffs of smoke from his track record to suggest we should temper our sympathy.
You can’t just go around rearranging other people’s faces unprovoked, unless you’d prefer deployment as a bouncer in some seedy joint.
Up-to-shoulder-height is the tackling limit in rugby union for good reason; this restriction does not dramatically curb the uniquely exciting physicality of the game we love.
Sorry, but in rugby, as in life, what goes around can come around.
Oh, and the Bulls, I think, will be good enough to beat the Crusaders even if it’s without one JP Nel …Tweet