It has been three weeks since the 6 Nations drew to a close. Traditionally, these three weeks are a bit of down time, with journalists recharging batteries after a manic 7 weeks and before the next big weekend, the European Quarter Finals. This year though, despite the tournament being rendered even more manic by the inclement Parisian weather and the rescheduled game which resulted, any thoughts of time off were neutralized by two topics.
The first was the crowning of King Stuart of Twickenham, and English Rugby’s 1st House of Lancaster. Enough column inches have been dedicated to this topic over the last few months though, so I’m going to concentrate on the other hot topic: on-field indiscipline, citings and the punishments that result. Both during the 6 Nations and in Domestic Rugby, yellow and red cards have rained like confetti and the once rare spectacle of a player being cited for foul play is now becoming a regular fixture in the Citing Commissioner’s diary.
Calum Clark, Dylan Hartley and Ben Youngs are the latest high profile names to appear before the citing commissioner, receiving 32 weeks, 8 weeks and 1 week suspensions respectively for hyper-extending the arm of Rob Hawkins, biting the fingers of Stephen Ferris and punching an opponent twice and using a knee. Mitigating factors were cited in the case of Hartley, which resulted in an extremely low penalty for a serious offence (reduced from 12 to 8 weeks after character witnesses and claims that Ferris was pulling his mouth), while Clark’s defence of “I never meant to hurt him” seemed to fall on partially deaf ears – rightly so. Youngs was also considerably lucky to receive a mere 1 week ban.
In recent months we have had players cited for striking opponents (Youngs and Tuilagi amongst others), biting (Hartley), spear tackles (Warburton, Davies, Ferris), serious foul play (Clark), hair pulling
(Ashton) and gouging (a little further back with Ghiraldini). Some of these players have a history of incidents, others do not. Within each category of incident, some are more serious than others.
Most of these offences, the exceptions being the striking of an opponent and the hair-pulling have one thing in common: a mindless attack on someone not in a position to defend themselves. The kind of cowardly attack that seriously damages people, sometimes beyond repair. It is right therefore, that the different offences carry different scales of punishment; not many people would disagree with
Let’s look at some facts and some of the inconsistencies:
In recent years, David Attoub, the prop who recently returned to the French side, was hit with the heaviest fine of recent times, after being found guilty of gouging Stephen Ferris; 70 weeks were handed out due to the severity of the incident, while Julien Dupuy was also banned for 24 weeks for a similar offence, also involving Ferris, in the same game. Leonardo Ghiraldini, the most recent gouging offender, received 15 weeks for his attack on Cian Healy. Yet, Aurelien Rougerie, who seemed to be caught gouging Richie McCaw in the showpiece World Cup Final, wasn’t even cited for “technical reasons”.
So did Attoub deserve more than a year longer sentence than Ghiraldini? Is there too much leeway given to Citing Commissioners? I’ve already accepted that certain cases need to be dealt with more leniently than others, but such a range in severity of punishment is in my opinion too much. What is more, you should have a strict minimum punishment, not a wishy-washy description of “Up to 8 weeks” with “Entry Level Punishments”. Any mitigating factors should only bring the punishment down to this fixed minimum level, no further. For reference, the shortest ban given at Professional level for gouging is one of 6 weeks (Martin Corry), while the longest is 2 years (that’s 19 times longer than the shortest!) for Richard Nones.
In the other incidents mentioned above, Ashton received a 4 week ban for his hair-pulling antics, while Tuilagi was deemed to have suffered enough through his red card. Warburton (3 weeks) and Davies (7 weeks) were found guilty by the citing commissioner of spear tackles of varying degrees of seriousness while Ferris was cleared. Clark received a 32 week ban for his thuggishness.
Again, I am not going to comment on the severity or not of these specific incidents, but I do wish to make one point. Davies, having made his spear tackle in February, missed 7 weeks and, effectively, 7 games. Clark, whose foul play was towards the end of March, will miss just 12 or so league games despite being banned for 32 weeks (and any involvement in International tours, which would have been minimal anyway).
Is that fair? Would a ban not be more consistently governed if it was given in terms of the number of games to be missed, rather than a number of weeks? In theory, a player banned for 4 weeks for an offence in the last game of the season, would only currently miss an International Tour. Surely that isn’t right? Some will say that the Citing Commissioners take into account the upcoming program when assigning the length of the ban, but I disagree. If that were the case, they would be saying that Clark’s breaking of Hawkins arm was a mere 5 (approximately) game ban worse than Davies (admittedly bad) spear tackle.
No, for me, the two key words to this whole Citing process are Consistency and Transparency.
So facts out of the way, time for my proposed tweaks to the citing system:
1. Make the punishment window for Citing Commissioners tighter.
2. Insert a fixed minimum penalty, at a high enough level to serve as a deterrent
3. Issue the punishment as “12 weeks or 12 games, whichever is longer” (player to be banned from ALL rugby, but the games must be competitive games for them to count)
I look forward to hearing what you think.
by Mark Bonsall