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Wallabies prop fails in bid to use SBW precedent over ban

Sunday, January 28, 2018

THE New South Wales Waratahs have failed where Sonny Bill Williams and the All Blacks succeeded, by losing an appeal to World Rugby to have festival rugby count in the three-week suspension of prop Sekope Kepu.

A 24-page, 7305-word World Rugby document on the decision reads like a soap opera and shows how determined the sport is to restore its integrity after a number of questionable loopholes players have taken advantage of in recent years to water down suspensions.

The facts are these: Kepu was shown a red card for an ugly shoulder charge against Scotland in November while playing for the Wallabies.

Kepu accepted a three-week suspension but appealed the decision. He and the Waratahs wanted to know whether the upcoming Brisbane Tens tournament, starting February 9, could be used to form part of his suspension.

One might think a straight yes or no from an appeal committee would suffice, however, rugby and its judicial processes are never that simple. There was a precedent though, which the Waratahs believe potentially influenced the decision.

Sonny Bill Williams was initially told a game of two 40-minute halves against Counties Manukau and Taranaki (two different clubs) did not constitute a proper match in his suspension last year, also for a shoulder charge while representing the All Blacks.

However, the Kiwis successfully appealed the decision, causing outrage and even more so when the final score of the "meaningful" match turned out to be 106-7.

At the time, World Rugby released a statement saying it was "surprised" by the overturned decision.

What is interesting is the mention of Williams' case in Kepu's decision papers.

Williams' appeal committee came to the conclusion: "The (original) committee fell into error by ascribing an overly-literal meaning to the word "match" and thereby failing to consider the meaning — and application — of the word from a common-sense, rugby, perspective."

This time around, there was a sharp rebuttal of that logic.

"With respect, we disagree. A common-sense rugby person would readily say that a match is played between two teams, not three; and over two halves, not in three thirds."

On that criteria, matches at the Brisbane Tens are played by two teams, meaning the Waratahs had a solid argument, right?

Not so fast. It's far more complex than that. The Waratahs believe the Williams decision may have had a bearing on Kepu and overall, in the words of one coach, the verdict was "disappointing".

Essentially, the committee decided Kepu could not use the Tens as a "meaningful playing consequence" — in other words, a fair dinkum enough game/tournament of footy to be on par with a test or Super Rugby fixture.

Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson was asked to give evidence. He explained he planned on taking Kepu to the tournament but that he was likely to be the only prop or second-rower from New South Wales. This was noted.

He went on to say Kepu was not expected to play a full 20 minutes in each match. The prop would have "short bursts" in each of the first three (of up to six) matches.

Some at NSW believe Gibson's honesty, whilst admirable, may have cost Kepu the chance to come back a game earlier to face the Sharks in Durban.

"Even in modern times, one could reasonably expect a front row forward to play at least 50 to 60 minutes of an 80-minute match," the committee determined.

"Short bursts" of about five minutes in three matches, does not get close to matching that.

"We therefore concluded that his proposed level of participation as described by Gibson would not amount to a meaningful playing consequence."

The Waratahs want Kepu to play at the Tens, even though he is serving a suspension from "meaningful matches".

"But, according to rule 17.19.10(a): "During any period of suspension, the player cannot play the game (or any form thereof)".

It didn't help either that Kepu had not played ten-a-side rugby since 2005. Or the fact he was a prop.

"He might well be explosive (as he was described) but a tight-head prop is not a natural fit for this shortened format of the game."

There was also a crucial error in the original tendering of facts that the Waratahs believe was "pivotal" in the final decision.

In a letter from Rugby Australia's head of integrity, Stephen Schmidhofer, it was stated Kepu played in the 2017 Brisbane Tens.

This was incorrect and an apology was made for a genuine error but it did not go down well with the committee.

"The evidence about this, as it unfolded before us, was unhappy for the appellant (Kepu).

"The disciplinary committee was misinformed."

Kepu is free to return for the Waratahs on March 5.

He will miss a pre-season match against the Rebels and two regular Super Rugby fixtures.

It is understood Kepu will fly straight to Argentina from Australia to face the Jaguares in Buenos Aires.

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