Recognising when rules are unfair
Ten days ago, Kowloon won rugby's First Division league title for the first time in 30 years. Fittingly, celebrations were from the top drawer, but it seems this has been a hollow victory with Kowloon's march to the silverware being mired in controversy.
It all began on January 14, when Hong Kong Football Club hosted them in a return fixture. Club won the game easily, in the process securing a bonus point by scoring four tries. Club thus gained five points from the match and moved into pole position in the league standings. The euphoria at Sports Road, though, was shortlived.
Someone, presumably from Kowloon, pointed out to the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union that Club fielded an ineligible player - front-rower Nigel Hobler. The former Hong Kong tight-head prop retired at the end of last season from top-grade rugby but was called up after Club captain Steve Nolan broke an ankle while on duty with the national team in Dubai last December.
Hobler, who has played for Club for countless seasons, answered the SOS. But little did Hobler, and his teammates, know his presence would ultimately end in Club being punished by the union for fielding an 'ineligible' player. As Hobler had retired from First Division rugby, Club hadn't registered him on their books this season. But when Nolan was felled by injury, and with a dearth of front-rowers - a problem rampant across all the clubs - Hobler was called up at the last moment and nobody thought to check if he was registered. Being such a standard fixture at Sports Road, everyone presumed it was okay for Hobler to play.
At the start of the season, the HKRFU brought in a ruling that clubs must register all their First and Second Division players before the season started. This was to prevent teams from flying in ringers from New Zealand, England or elsewhere at the business end of the season to make an impact and win the league. Hobler was hardly in this category, but Club still paid the price.
The HKRFU's league fixture control panel declared Club had breached the rules by fielding an ineligible player and had to forfeit the match. The result was officially put down as 20-0 to Kowloon. The figure 20 is crucial as it meant Kowloon had won the game with a bonus point - four tries equals 20 points. On top of this, the judicial panel also ruled Club be deducted a further point.
In effect, this was an 11-point swing in favour of Kowloon. From having won five points by defeating Kowloon on the pitch, Club not only lost that, but saw five points being awarded to Kowloon and were also docked another point.
Then, as if to add insult to injury, the panel declared that 'in recognition that this was an administrative oversight, as opposed to a deliberate breach, no further financial sanction to be imposed on Club'.
The ruling was open for an appeal but Club chose not to, recognising the fact they were in the wrong. There can be no denying Hobler was ineligible, simply because he hadn't been registered pre-season. But this is where sports, and the people who run it, can be over-officious. True, the rule book might say so, but in the spirit of the game, were Club really flouting the law deliberately. I don't think so.
Hobler was not some Super 15 prop from New Zealand or Australia flown in to beef up the front row and dominate the opposition. He is a player who has dedicated a major part of his life in service to Hong Kong and Club rugby. He is one of the unsung heroes of the game, the kind of player at the coal face who rarely gets his share of the limelight.
Yes, Club erred by fielding him, but this was probably a knee-jerk reaction. A front-rower is injured, 'call up Nige' would have been the call. It was harsh, to say the least, that Club were penalised all their points for this error, not done with trickery or deception in mind, but with genuine human oversight. Hobler also came on late in the second half, pressing home the point that he was just a back-up for Nolan and the need to have front-row cover on the bench.
This leaves a bitter taste in the mouth for all neutrals and supporters of rugby, and Kowloon's triumph this season will always have an asterisk beside it for those with long memories. The fact that Kowloon won six games - the final standings say seven due to the farcical award by the HKRFU - and yet were crowned league champions, despite Club winning nine matches, says it all.
Sometimes, in sports, we get too immersed in it, and as such miss the bigger picture. We get too full of ourselves, like the union's panel which dished out this harsh judgment. What they should have taken into account was that Hobler was playing simply as a replacement for Club captain Nolan, who had injured himself in the line of duty for Hong Kong. This is what should have mattered in the end.