To plead or not to plead: Should Ben Flower face criminal charges?
On very few occasions does the traditionally provincial sport of rugby league throw up controversy of the magnitude, on a similar level to football; however, an incident in the Super League Grand Final has become a matter of national news and public interest.
To set the scene, one of the fiercest rivalries in the sport between Wigan and St Helens came to a head on the biggest stage. They shared the spotlight of the Grand Final at Old Trafford; the home of football’s Manchester United.
An accidental, though illegal infringement off the ball, from Saints’ Lance Hohaia on opposition prop forward Ben Flower, led to the latter delivering a knock-out blow to Hohaia’s head who slumped to the ground out cold.
In the heat of the moment, a reaction understandable enough after a high tackle, which is quite commonplace in rugby league, however what Flower did next had even well respected, ex-professionals reeling. Seemingly not content with Hohaia lying motionless, he followed up with a punch to his unresponsive head. An action that has since been branded “cowardly” by ‘outsiders’, though the player himself qualified it as “heat of the moment”. Views that have since been echoed by legend of the game Jonathan Davies, who elaborated further.
“It was absolutely disgraceful, everybody agrees with that,” he said. “I think even [Ben] Flower agrees with that. Unfortunately, it happens in the game. But it opens up a can of worms if the police get involved because then you could have cases like this from any sport, on a Saturday morning from any age.”
Issuing a full apology, the next morning, 26-year-old Flower said: “I firstly offer my apologies to Lance. I have full respect for him, and have never gone onto a rugby field to injure a fellow player.
“I’d also like to say sorry to my team-mates, our fans and the Wigan Club. I know I’ve let them down like never before and accept I’ll have to live with this for the rest of my career.
“Finally, I’m sorry to the sport of Rugby League. It was a big night and I know I’ve taken the attention away from what was a special event.”
It has emerged that Greater Manchester Police are looking into the incident, despite no official complaints. Perhaps remarkably to those not familiar with the code and ethics of the sport, everyone from both teams, coaches included and the victim himself, Hohaia had qualified sympathy for Flower, who showed no desire to take the matter further, or at least not to a criminal court.
“Sometimes these things happen in a game,” Hohaia said. “In the heat of the moment people do things they regret. I’ve done some silly things myself, so I don’t hold any regrets against Ben – he’s probably disappointed with himself.
“I don’t remember the incident – people have been telling me what happened. I don’t think the nose is broken but I’ll have a scan on it in the week. I wanted to go back on but the doctor wouldn’t let me and obviously my health goes before anything else.”
It is a sign of the enormous mutual respect every player in the sport has for each other, that such an incident be dealt with internally. Compared to football, where teams purposefully attempt to get opposition players sent off, and demonstrate simulation, rugby league is exactly the opposite.
Two squads of 34 players going up against each other as hard as they can for 80 minutes at high intensity is a test of courage, honour and endurance. At the end of the match, there is a mutual respect for the effort put in by everyone, regardless of the result, everyone aware of the fact that the occasional black eye is usually the result two opponents playing hard, albeit within the laws of the game.
Ben Flower may have gone too far, his actions are not to be condoned, though like a man of the character that is needed to play the sport, he will accept the consequences of his actions, and come back stronger.