Setting a precedent

SIMON BORCHARDT finds out how Ryand Hattingh broke his neck in a schools match after his opponent used an illegal scrumming manoeuvre, and how, in a landmark court ruling, the latter was made liable for damages.

Ryand Hattingh never heard the crack when his neck broke on 30 July 2005. All he remembers, before passing out face-down in the grass, is his brain telling his body to get up, and his body – which felt like it was on fire – ignoring the request.

Moments earlier, Hattingh had scrummed down at hooker for Labori High’s 1st XV. His direct opponent from Stellenbosch High, Alex Roux, had called out ‘jackknife’ before moving his head to the right to block the space where Hattingh’s head was supposed to go. As a result, Hattingh’s head was forced downwards and the scrum collapsed.

Labori’s medic (a teacher from the school) and an on-duty fireman rushed to the 18-year-old. They turned him over, put his neck in a brace and eased him on to a wooden stretcher.

Hattingh woke up in the ambulance before losing consciousness again. He was on his way to Stellenbosch Medi-Clinic when the hospital informed the ambulance driver that it didn’t have a Cat scan machine, and referred him to Vergelegen Medi-Clinic in Somerset West. From there a helicopter flew him to the spine unit at the University of Cape Town Private Academic Hospital.

When Hattingh woke up again his father, Ferdi, was there to gently break the news. He told his son that there was something wrong with his neck and he would need to have an operation. Having been in hospital before, Ryand wasn’t  too concerned, and he asked his girlfriend at the time to put a towel under his head to make him more comfortable on the stretcher. Fortunately, she refused. Unbeknown to them, his neck had been broken at the C5 and C6 vertebrae and if she had moved his head an inch the wrong way he could have been paralysed or killed.

The emergency operation was a success in that Hattingh would be able to walk again, but the nerve damage to the left side of his body meant he would never fulfil his childhood dream of becoming a pilot.

Hattingh, though, refused to feel sorry for himself. When his doctor told him he could write his matric exams the following March instead of that October he insisted on continuing with his studies. His maths teacher visited him regularly in the hospital and he wrote his exams at the school in October.

Hattingh also had a good support structure. His family and girlfriend visited him daily at the hospital, his rugby team came once a week, and he received countless letters from school friends and other pupils who he didn’t even know.

Morné du Plessis, the chairman of the Chris Burger-Petro Jackson Fund, which offers financial assistance and emotional support to South African rugby players who suffer serious injury, also paid Ryand a visit. And when the former Bok captain heard how the injury had occurred he told Ferdi they should take legal action.

The Hattingh family considered this, but it was only after they consulted an experienced personal injury attorney, Allan Jones, that the case gained some momentum.

Hattingh’s court case began on 19 August 2010 and was based on the fact that by moving his head to the right, Roux had not only broken the laws of the game (front rows are required to interlock at the scrum so that no player’s head is next to the head of a team-mate), but that it was also a dangerous manoeuvre that resulted in serious injury. For Hattingh to succeed, his legal team would have to prove that Roux had executed the ‘jackknife’ manoeuvre which caused the injury, and that Roux’s conduct was wrongful and that he acted intentionally or negligently.

Ex-Springbok prop Balie Swart was Hattingh’s expert witness, while Roux turned to former Test referee André Watson and ex-Bulls and Scotland prop Matthew Proudfoot.

Having analysed the match video, Swart testified that Roux had blocked the channel into which Hattingh had to place his head, which resulted in Roux applying downward pressure on Hattingh’s neck and causing the injury. Swart said Roux had been able to move to his right by loosening the grip of his left hand, which binds on the loosehead prop, and tilting his left shoulder.

Watson and Proudfoot claimed Hattingh’s tighthead prop had not bound properly and had gone into the scrum at an angle (to his left, towards Roux and Hattingh), which had forced Roux to move to his right.

The video footage helped the judge to decide who was to blame.

In a shot showing the tunnel of the scrum, the head of the Stellenbosch loosehead is closest to the camera and Hattingh’s head is next to his but deeper into the scrum. Importantly, Roux’s head is not visible. The judge said that had Roux been in his correct channel, Hattingh’s head would have been obscured by Roux’s.

Video footage also shows that while Roux bound properly with his loosehead at first, he moved his left hand upwards along the left side of his team-mate. Upon scrum engagement, Roux’s hand had loosened and moved significantly towards the middle of the loosehead’s back. The judge said that given the positions of the front-row players, it could only have been Roux who pushed Hattingh’s head down, and while the Labori tighthead had scrummed at an angle, it had no effect on Roux’s position as there had not been enough physical contact between them.

Roux initially testified that this had been a normal scrum and that he had placed his head into the correct channel between those of Hattingh and the Labori tighthead. But Roux changed his story after seeing the video footage, saying that the Labori tighthead could have caused him to move to his right. The judge dismissed this version as a ‘reconstructed afterthought’.

Roux also claimed that he couldn’t remember if he had called out ‘jackknife’ and that the call, when it was used, was only to tell the forwards whether to push fractionally to the left or the right (‘jackknife left’ or ‘jackknife right’). But, as the judge pointed out, if that was the case then simply saying ‘jackknife’ would not achieve anything.

Roux and his loosehead prop could also not explain why their coach had never heard the word ‘jackknife’ used by his team, at training or in a match.

The judge therefore decided ‘that the more acceptable explanation for the use of the “jackknife” code is to indicate a manoeuvre which causes the scrum to “jackknife”, ie, to collapse due to the opposition hooker being forced into a bent or doubled-up position’. (Swart told the court that the ‘jackknife’  call is used to dominate a team by disrupting – and hurting – their scrum, while Proudfoot said he had only heard of it in ‘folklore’ and had never seen it with his own eyes.)

Hattingh’s case was further strengthened when Labori’s reserve hooker testified that Roux had moved to his right in the first scrum that followed the one in which Hattingh was injured. Roux and his coach then argued that performing such a manoeuvre would not benefit their team as Roux himself could have been injured. The judge, though, said that as Roux’s left shoulder would have come into contact with Hattingh’s neck, the risk to his opponent would have been greater.

On 4 May 2011, Judge Fourie delivered his verdict. He said that the manoeuvre executed by Roux was ‘a planned move, deliberately executed, well knowing that injury was a likely result thereof’, adding that ‘this is not the normal type of risk that a participant in a scrum would have consented to’. He then ordered Roux to pay damages to Hattingh, which could run into hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of rands.

Hattingh’s lawyer, Allan Jones, said it was a landmark judgement that could apply to any sport.

‘It has established a principle that when a player does something illegal during a game it is considered to be an offence and unlawful.’

However, the courtroom battle may not be over. Roux’s legal team has appealed the verdict, and if they fail in that bid, the matter could go to the Supreme Court in Bloemfontein.

Hattingh has come to terms with his injury. The main nerve in his left hand is dead, so while he can close the hand he can’t open it again. He has given up trying to strengthen the left side of his body through physiotherapy and gym work as it hasn’t helped. The sensory loss makes it difficult for him to tell if it’s hot or cold, and he laughs when telling the story about his shorts catching fire when he stood too close to a braai.

While Hattingh dreamt of becoming a pilot, he is also passionate about cars and is now a car mechanic. He struggled initially to find work after his accident – ‘no one wanted to hire someone with a handicap’ – and started his own car washing business. He then got a job at a car dealership but lost it when they had to cut back on staff. A friend found him work as a forklift driver at a paper company but having to turn around hurt his neck and back, so he had to quit. Hattingh left his next job at a car rental company because he was required to drive long distances and needed to stop regularly to stretch.

‘My current job is great because the guys I work with are always willing to help each other and I’m able take short breaks when I need to,’ he says. ‘I’m a positive person. When people ask me if I wish my injury could be fixed, I say no. I’m used to it, this is who I am now.’

Hattingh says he and Roux have spoken just once since that infamous scrum.

‘We were going into court. He shook my hand and said “Sterkte”. I don’t hold a grudge. If I see him in the street I will shake his hand and talk rugby with him. But that’s as far as I’ll go.’

I ask Ryand’s mother, Christina, if she’s forgiven Roux, and she takes a few seconds to respond.

‘I have,’ she says. ‘But when Ryand came home from the hospital and got so frustrated because he couldn’t tie his shoes, then … well, then I was furious with him [Roux]. But I’m just grateful that Ryand is alive and can live a normal life.’

– This article first appeared in the July issue of SA Rugby magazine. The August issue will be on sale from Wednesday, 27 July.