For the second time on this tour Wallaby captain James Horwill has been the fulcrum of a significant momentum shift towards his team. The first was after the Brisbane Test, when in the space of 24 hours it emerged that he had been cleared of a disciplinary charge for shoeing Alun Wyn Jones in the face, while the Lions lost Paul O’Connell with a broken arm. So the Wallabies retained their go-to man up front – and they would not have won the Second Test without him – while the Lions lost theirs.
Then this morning Horwill did it again. The escape act that is. The result is a turbo boost to the Australia who are already feeling the way most home nations feel when the Third Test comes around: well tuned.
The retrial of Horwill has predictably divided most down here into red and gold camps. Tonight in Sydney the Justice for Horwill supporters will be raising a few glasses for two reasons: at the sharp end they have hung onto their leader, who comes across as being effective and articulate and absolutely first rate at the job; and in the second they have headed off the IRB whose intrusion in the process has been presented as selective and unfair.
It’s worth remembering that the Australian Rugby Union are signatories to the amendment made just over a year ago that allows the IRB to revisit disciplinary cases between Tier 1 nations, and only Tier 1 nations. Moreover this option is clearly understood as part of the Tour Agreement between Australia and the Lions. The shock and horror in these parts at the interjection of Big Brother is theatrical, and those who are shouting loudest are the ones who understand it least.
Why was the amendment made? To ensure consistency in the process, and to allow howlers to be rectified. The appleal hearing has found that this was no howler, but clearly the IRB thought there was an unsustainable gap between the evidence and the conclusion in the Horwill hearing, so they invoked the clause.
It was easy to see where they were coming from. When you juxtapose Horwill’s testimony from the first hearing with the actual footage from the game it’s like something from ‘the cat ate my homework’ school of excuses. He said his action – the one that made contact with Alun Wyn Jones’s face and required a couple of stitches over the Lion’s eye – was an attempt to regain balance, that he was afraid of ending up on the ground on the wrong side of the ruck and in penalty territory if he didn’t take corrective action. Hello? Earth to Captain Horwill?
When I read that I figured there were other angles that we weren’t seeing and which told a different story. This is common enough: you look at something on the standard tv footage and are horrified; then you get the angles the citing commissioner has access to and you see a different story. This was confirmed in the written judgement of the original judicial officer – well, kind of.
“With nine video clips available to me ……with different angles and perspectives to those available to the Citing Commissioner. I was as a consequence in a position of some advantage over that of the Citing Commissioner.”
Great. And what did those angles tell you that lead to James Horwill being exonerated? Eh, we still don’t know. Interestingly when at a press conference after that first hearing Horwill referred to those same angles he was asked the same question, and made no reference to a whole different situation unfolding when viewed from a grassy knoll.
This morning at eight o’clock we fetched up at the Wallaby team hotel to be told that the scheduled press conference, to deal with the appeal judgement, had been postponed till lunchtime – because, remarkably, the decision still hadn’t been handed down overnight. Whatever about the disgruntled hacks, the Aussie media man looked unsettled at the prospect of being unable to appeal the appeal if indeed it was upheld.
Well, no worries mate. Captain Marvel is still a free man. The appeal hearing concluded that in the first case there had been no error in law or principle, and moreover that it was reasonable for the judicial officer to arrive at the conclusion which let Horwill off. The IRB had argued that a pillar of the dismissal was that the incident had occurred at a ruck, when it had been a collapsed maul, but that didn’t stand up.
It is a matter of opinion if you think James Horwill’s explanation of his action was credible. I don’t think it was, but two people in a much higher pay grade beg to differ. That the IRB took action and had it knocked back doesn’t render the move either unwise or not useful. And if James Horwill lifts the Tom Richards Cup here on Saturday night, I don’t think he’ll be complaining about the swing that helped them over the line.