James Horwill is free to lead Australia in Saturday’s third and deciding Test against the British and Irish Lions after being cleared of stamping charges in a second judicial hearing ordered by the International Rugby Board (IRB).
Appeal officer Graeme Mew of Canada rejected the IRB appeal brought against Horwill after he was cleared of foul play charges at a previous judicial hearing by New Zealand-based Nigel Hampton, who found there was no intentional or deliberate action of stamping or trampling on Lions lock Alun-Wyn Jones in the first Test in Brisbane.
The IRB launched its unprecedented appeal before the second Test in Melbourne, Australia, where Horwill led Australia to a 16-15 victory to level the series.
The decision was released yesterday, more than 14 hours after a two-hour hearing held late on Monday in Sydney by video conference and with Mew in Toronto, Canada.
Horwill said he found out during a weight training session that he was eligible to play on Saturday.
“It’s huge,” Horwill said. “I love what I do and it means a lot to me to represent my country, and not only to represent it, but to lead it in what is arguably the biggest game in this country since the Rugby World Cup final in 2003. I’m excited at that opportunity and now we can focus on the game.”
“I feel very vindicated by the way it’s gone. The process is what it is, but I have to say it was a very fair process both times,” he added. “The hearings were very fair.”
In his findings, Mew said that there were no errors of law or principle in the original decision and no evidence that Hampton’s decision was “manifestly wrong or that the interests of justice otherwise required his decision be overturned.”
“There was sufficient evidence upon which a reasonable judicial officer could have reached the decision that was made,” Mew said.
However, Mew also said that the IRB’s appeal had been properly taken in the discharge of its responsibilities to promote and ensure player welfare, and to protect the image and the reputation of the game.
The Dublin-based IRB issued a statement saying it “fully accepts” Mew’s decision, and was satisfied it took the right approach with the case.
“The protection of players from foul play, intentional or otherwise, is vital in upholding the values and image of rugby, and to send a clear message to all levels of the game that such acts are unacceptable,” the statement said. “In light of the potential adverse implications, the IRB is keen to ensure all acts of foul play involving the head should be given serious and thorough consideration.”
If Horwill had been banned from playing the third Test, it would have meant both captains were lost to their teams. On Monday, Lions flanker Sam Warburton was ruled out of the third match with a torn left hamstring.
Horwill told a news conference last week after the IRB announced the appeal that he was “confident of what happened on the field.”
The original hearing, he said, “was four hours and we had nine different camera angles to look at, so it was very thorough and in that case, the hearing went through its due process via an IRB-appointed judicial officer.”
Jones needed stitches to a head wound after the Lions won the first Test 23-21 and Horwill was subsequently cited.
Hampton’s original finding caused outrage among fans in Britain, and the IRB said it wanted to “further examine potential acts of foul play which either potentially or in reality impact on the preservation of player welfare.”
In his earlier comments, Horwill said the one TV angle shown on replays was not a full reflection of the incident, when he claimed to have lost balance before making contact with Jones’ head with his right boot.
“You can slow anything down to make it look different, but if you look at the other angles, you can see what happened,” Horwill said.
“I’ve played more than 130 professional rugby games and never been cited once and never been to any judicial hearings. It was a complete accident. Unfortunately, accidents happen in rugby — it’s a contact sport. There was no intent or malice,” he added.