Amongst my social networking friends are people who have played, coached and officiated at every level of domestic professional rugby league, and even on the international stage... you’ll also find the amazing Mrs Thorman as well. All are better placed than me to have an opinion on the Ben Flowers situation, which has dominated the sports news since the weekend’s Grand Final, but I’d like to add another perspective if I may.
As far as the incident itself is concerned, it occurred within the opening seconds of the biggest game of the season. The adrenaline levels must have been higher than normal - for seasoned professionals let alone the younger players - and everyone on the field will have wanted to get involved and have an immediate (and positive...) impact on proceedings.
So when Wigan’s Ben Flower dropped the ball when he would surely have scored had he held onto it, instant heightened frustration would be an expected consequence. Add to that the fact that Lance Hohaia nailed him with a pretty cheap shot, the right hook that followed was retaliation that was as understandable as it was undeniably effective.
Had it ended there, the referee could have given both players ten minutes to cool down, or maybe even simply calmed an over-wrought situation by taking the time to speak with those involved and their captains. But....
It didn’t end there, and by now everyone will surely have seen what followed.
The punch to the face of a prone player and the melee that ensued made for very unpleasant viewing. The red card was inevitable, and St Helens subsequent hard fought and deserved victory is now written into the rugby league history books.
The grading of Flowers’ offence meant that his punishment was always going to be severe – a minimum ban of eight matches – and whether or not you agree with the final decision of six months (seemingly equating to twelve or thirteen games), Wigan are not appealing the verdict and further debate is therefore frankly pointless.
To his credit, Lance Hohaia (notwithstanding his role as instigator) has been magnanimous in his comments, and statements released by both Wigan and St Helens certainly set the right tone, but what about Flower himself?
I’ve read reports and listened to interviews that describe him as a pleasant and decent person off the pitch, whose actions on Saturday left him inconsolable and genuinely full of remorse. In a few months time, he will return to the fray and his presence will surely provoke a strong reaction from the terraces – and probably a comment or two on the field as well.
That will be tough to deal with, but right at this moment, Ben Flower is nothing more than a 25 (soon to be 26) year-old young man trying to come to terms with the archetypal “moment of madness” that will surely stay with him for the rest of his career and beyond. For him, rehabilitation would have been a swift return to competition and, over time, letting the positive aspects of his game do the talking. Instead he has got an awful lot of time to dwell on his actions;, the team mates, family, friends and fans that he let down, and the fact that he probably cost his club the Grand Final.
I’ll be honest, all that could be crushing. Ben Flower is an elite athlete, but is he strong enough to deal with the mental fallout?
I am sure that Flower will be given every support as he serves his ban. It will be incredibly hard for him, but I genuinely hope he comes through this, learns from his mistake and is a better man as a result.
That the game of rugby league has been damaged is beyond question. But irreparably? Personally I don’t think so.
The incident has brought the sport into sharp focus, and to the attention of many casual observers who only cross paths with a certain sport when it makes the headlines (whether for positive or negative reasons). Here is a golden opportunity to take a sizeable negative, and for rugby league to be seen to support those towards whom the media spotlight has been, and will be directed, and prove the doubters wrong. It will take time, and damaging a reputation takes a whole lot less time than building it up, but here is a chance to ultimately showcase all that is good about rugby league. Grab it with both hands...
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