Jeff Blackett interview: RFU chief slams World Rugby for delay in Rassie Erasmus misconduct hearing

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RFU president Jeff Blackett - GETTY IMAGES
RFU president Jeff Blackett - GETTY IMAGES

Jeff Blackett, not for the first time, does not mince his words.

The Rugby Football Union’s president, who is regarded as the governing body’s most distinguished disciplinary figure, says he has been appalled at the length of time it has taken World Rugby to set up Rassie Erasmus' misconduct hearing for criticising match officials in the wake of the Lions’ first Test victory over the Springboks in July.

World Rugby only confirmed last week that South Africa’s director of rugby would face a hearing on the weekend of Oct 30/31 - over three months since the video of his controversial outburst was published on social media.

Blackett, who was Judge Advocate General of the Armed Forces since 2004, before he retired last year, and also adjudicated on some of English rugby’s most infamous scandals during his 10-year tenure as the governing body’s disciplinary officer, believes Erasmus’s case should have been staged in the same week his 62-minute video rant was published.

There is frustration too that Erasmus has been allowed to draw out the process so that the hearing will now take place after both the completion of the Lions series as well as the Rugby Championship. One of his significant achievements as RFU disciplinary officer was to improve the pace of dealing with hearings.

“It’s dreadful, if I’d been in charge he would have been in front of a panel on Tuesday, fans don’t like the process to take too long,” Blackett told Telegraph Sport.

While he declined to comment directly on Erasmus’ behaviour, which appeared to affect the decision-making process in the second Test with so many incidents being referred to the television match official, Blackett warned it was critical to the game for respect for referees to be upheld.

“Rugby referees are considered by many to be the best officials in the world,” he added.

“We teach players coming into the game from a very young age to respect referees and match officials, it’s part of the core values of our sport; teamwork, respect, enjoyment and discipline. This culture and tradition of respect is maintained through the powers of the referees and governing bodies to sanction and discipline poor behaviour.”

Rassie Erasmus - SKY SPORTS
Rassie Erasmus - SKY SPORTS

Blackett’s role as RFU president is now largely titular, but his passion for the game still burns strongly. The RFU council took the unorthodox step of extending his presidency for a second year because of the impact of the pandemic and the need for continuity.

The former chairman of the professional game board will embark on a 150-mile walk with his wife Sally from this Friday, a 15-day nationwide tour to raise money for the Injured Players Foundation as part of the RFU’s official 150th anniversary celebrations.

The walk began at his own club, United Services Portsmouth RFC in Hampshire, and will take in 18 different constituent bodies across England before concluding at Twickenham on the eve of England’s opening match of the Autumn Nations Series, against Tonga.

Blackett hopes it will be seen as a “crusade” to help thank the estimated 100,000 volunteers who kept the grass-roots clubs going throughout the lockdowns and also act as a rallying call to players to return to the game at a time when there has been a rise in the number of fixtures cancelled, particularly for sides below 1st XVs.

Blackett is also concerned that action is taken to address welfare issues both at grass-roots level and the elite game.

“Increasing participation is a huge challenge,” added Blackett. “Particularly where there are so many other things to do for youngsters. There are issues that we have to address - head injuries and concussion, where sometimes the reality isn’t quite what perception is and so we're always struggling to get the message out.

“I think the game is in pretty good shape but players are under such pressure, particularly at the top end. We talk about player welfare and we've got to deliver on player welfare.

“We recently had a suggestion that we should have another tournament, a (World) 12s tournament. It's just putting massive pressure on the players so one of the challenges for us is to make sure we put into action our talk about player welfare and we resist the urge to overplay and commercialise because in the end that would not be sensible.

“The benefits of rugby and playing rugby far outweigh the risks of injury but we have to make sure we minimise the risk.”

He is also keen to see more robust sanctions for foul play, similar to the crackdown he implemented on stamping when he started as RFU disciplinary officer in 2003.

“We argue endlessly about whether something was intentional or not. The fact is if somebody is tipped over and lands on his head, whether it's an accident or not, it's dangerous.

“We've got to get the game to a place - and we can do it through laws and we can do it through discipline - where we minimise that danger.

“Sometimes a disciplinary case might seem that a player is harshly done by, but if it helps stop other people doing that then it is part of the disciplinary process.”

Blackett, who will be visiting four or five clubs in each of the 18 areas on his walk, is hopeful it will help raise the profile of club rugby and encourage players back to the game.

“Everybody was really frustrated when they couldn't play rugby and everybody's concerned about getting people back to play,” he added.

“All the clubs I've been to so far all feel they've been well supported by the RFU, and they had the government grants and the loans, but so far there has been a few more than we hoped matches being cancelled at the lower levels.

“We are hopeful we will regenerate those teams and part of what we are doing is try to get around and say, ‘come on guys, this is what rugby is about’, and hopefully join in. "

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