Skulduggery has been part and parcel of rugby since English schoolboy William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it in 1823. In clubrooms the rugby world over, ''enforcers'' and practitioners of the ''dark arts'' are almost as celebrated as speedy three-quarters and back-line generals.
As it is elsewhere, so it is here. Some of New Zealand's most famous players have been some of its dirtiest.
Nevertheless, there are some acts that are unacceptable on a sports field, no matter who the perpetrator or the victim.
For that reason, it is worrying that Sanzar judiciary official Jannie Lubbe has chosen to only suspend Australian flanker Scott Higginbotham for four weeks for kneeing and head-butting All Black captain Richie McCaw during Saturday night's drawn test match against the Wallabies.
Because of the Wallabies' playing schedule, the suspension effectively amounts to only a two-week ban if Higginbotham is selected for the Wallabies' end-of-year tour of France and England - hardly sufficient to deter others from cheap shots on key opponents.
A statement issued by the Australian Rugby Union suggests Lubbe, a South African, reduced Higginbotham's penalty because neither blow was particularly forceful and McCaw was able to continue playing. That is, or should be, beside the point.
We agree wholeheartedly with the final point. A headbutt is a headbutt, regardless of the force with which it is delivered. And Meneer Lubbe has, over the period of a couple of seasons shown himself to be something of a soft touch for recalcitrant rugby players.
The leader writer continues:
Rugby is a sport unlike almost any other. It gives grown men an opportunity to take part in organised mayhem. Activities that would result in criminal convictions if committed off the field are applauded and celebrated. However, there are conventions that must be observed if the game is not to descend into a mass brawl.
One is that all the players agree to abide by the decisions of a single man - usually smaller and older than the combatants - with a whistle strung around his neck. Another is that the players have a modicum of regard for the long-term wellbeing of those they are playing against. It is one thing to pit one's strength against an opponent's in a tackle. It is another entirely to target him while he is lying on the ground.
There are several who appear to have forgotten that when confronted by McCaw in recent seasons.
First it was New Zealand-born Wallaby first five-eighth Quade Cooper knocking him in the head with his knee as he got up from a ruck, then it was Springbok prop Dean Greyling launching himself forearm first at McCaw's head while the All Black skipper was on the ground, and on Saturday it was Higginbotham.
In a way, the attacks are a backhanded compliment to McCaw's extraordinary skill and durability. He so frustrates opponents that they are prepared to risk being sent off to try to neutralise the threat he represents.
However, with what is now known about the long-term consequences of head injuries, no player should have his head targeted as McCaw's has been. Rugby authorities should make a stand. And so should opposition players and coaches.
Virtually every player finds himself defenceless at some point. On Saturday it was McCaw's turn - again. Next week it could be someone else's.
As the leader writer notes, Richie McCaw is indeed a durable footballer. But let's not forget that earlier in his career there was serious concern for his long-term future in the game after a couple of concussions in quick succession.
Dean Greyling's cheap shot on McCaw was the most serious of the season. It had the potential to cause a serious and possibly career-ending injury to the victim. But there was something especially nasty about Higginbotham's thuggery at the weekend. Before he head-butted McCaw, Higginbotham wrapped his hand and arm around McCaw's head so that his prey could not escape. That indicates a level of premeditation on Higginbotham's account.
We don't reckon that the sentences handed down to either Greyling on Higginbotham were sufficient. If the IRB and SANZAR are to be serious about stopping acts of thuggery on the rugby field, the message needs to come from the judicial room.