It was inevitable that the incident that has turned Akker van der Merwe (AKA the Angry Warthog) into social media’s most reviled scoundrel would occur – it just did not happen in the way I had imagined.
In my mind’s eye there was an image of a player hunched over a ruck being hit by a flying human missile weighing some 120 kilograms and suffering a horrendous injury to the head. Instead came the temper eruption that caused the Angry Warthog to behave more like an enraged lion as he attacked his hapless and prone assailant.
Van der Merwe has been lambasted as viciously as his two-fisted pummelling of Schalk Brits was. While not condoning Van der Merwe’s actions it is my contention that the blame for his volcanic eruption lies squarely with rugby’s law makers.
The “clean-out” which has slowly infested the game until it is now a scourge has long been an accident looking for a place to happen. The Van der Merwe/Brits contretemps was a direct result of the way players are allowed to “attack” opponents who are nowhere near the ball.
It is legalised thuggery in which playing the man rather than the ball has, in fact, been made legal. Just like the disappearance of the ruck, the driving maul and the advent of chronic off-sides, World Rugby is administering a game which in many ways hardly resembles what is envisaged by the laws.
Week in and week out one sees it. An attacking player is tackled and goes to ground; a defender immediately gets his hands over the ball, often not to win it but just to prevent it being played back, the tackler jumps up and joins and perhaps one more defender.
The side “with” the ball is then forced to send in a number of men to “clean out” the pilferers, jackals or “jacklers” according to net-speak, to clear a passage for the ball… so they are legally allowed to pile into opponents, sometimes with great force, to knock them away.
Van der Merwe’s meltdown came as the Sharks set a lineout drive for the line. Brits ended up on top of the melee grappling for the ball and Van der Merwe went in hard, leading with his head (perhaps because his arms might have been construed as an attack on Brits’ head), to move him.
He first made contact with Brits’ shoulder and then his head (the commentators described it as a head butt). Brits took umbrage, pulled Van der Merwe down by his jersey and then threw the first punch.
And that’s when the red mist descended and Van der Merwe’s frustration at being unable to crack the Springbok squad boiled over. He vented his anger directly at the 37-year-old Rassie Erasmus brought out of retirement to stand in his way. Doubtless there was a fair bit of chirping going on and, given the tough physical combat inherent in rugby, it is surprising that these incidents don’t occur more often.
The incident also showed how rugby has changed. There was a time that careers and reputations were built by a swing of the dukes – Gys Pitzer on John Pullin, Frik du Preez on Alain Plantefol, Morne du Plessis on Kleintjie Grobler and Gert Smal on Gary Knight – and fans rejoiced in the dark deeds of their teams’ enforcers. It’s powder-puff stuff compared to how it used to be.
Of course it would do the image of the game no good if players were permitted do go round throwing haymakers. But if only the keepers of the law would be as cognisant and righteous about those other areas (as mentioned above) that are making the game ugly and unwatchable as they are when the fists start to fly.