Gouging will never be eradicated from the game whilst it is endemically sanctioned and its severity ignored by those in power.
The most outrageous side of the incidents that have been identified and punished over recent months has not necessarily been the brutality itself, but the reaction of the players’ bosses. Whilst the debate surrounding the incidents has been focused on the length of bans and a call for consistency in punishment, the most sickening fact has been the comments made by those in charge of the players involved.
In the summer, Peter De Villiers, the South African coach, responded to Schalk Burger’s 8-week ban by sickeningly claiming that he saw nothing wrong, that it was accidental, and that “if you are going to complain about ever incident we might as well go to a ballet shop and all get tutus”. Yes, rugby is “a contact sport”, but deliberately targeting a player’s most vulnerable spot with the possibility of permanent and life-altering injury is nothing short of criminal.
To defend this is worse. Whilst many of us who play rugby can understand the intensity of a game and the frustration that would lead to an unsavoury incident – even though gouging is in my opinion a step far beyond the line of acceptability – to consider the evidence in the cold light of day and deny an issue exists suggests there are still detractors who do not understand the full implications of this malice.
The comments of De Villiers were taken as they seemed at the time – another ill-informed judgement by a coach who has faced much criticism during his tenure. It is not the first controversial statement he has made. But then Max Guazzini, President of Stade Francais, waded into the debate with a scandalous comment.
Julien Dupuy has been hit with a 6-month ban for his ‘double-gouge’ that was plainly caught by the Sky TV cameras in last weekend’s Heineken Cup match. The length of the ban can be argued as both excessive or too brief, but the comments of Guazzini almost defy belief: the ban is “excessive, very political and anti-French”. “[ERC] wanted to make an example of a symbolic player of Stade Francais and of the French team which has never had a disciplinary problem”. Firstly, I think anyone who has watched French rugby in the past knows that they are far from the cleanest players. That they have not had a ‘disciplinary problem’ highlights the lack of consistency in punishment, but is irrelevant to this issue.
Surely the sport cannot even begin to clean up the problem of gouging whilst this type of ‘shrug-the-shoulders’ attitude prevails. It seems that the view is held by a minority, and of course such comments are always headline-grabbers so will appear in black-and-white throughout the media, but this irresponsibility is both staggering and damaging to the game’s safety and image. It seems that the disciplinary committees are doing their best to stamp out the practice. What goes through a player’s head when he makes the conscious decision to neutralise an opponent by digging his fingers deep into their eye socket is beyond me. I truly hope not, but perhaps the possible severity of the offence will only be fully appreciated when a player is blinded for life, and woe betide the offender in such a situation as I can see a criminal prosecution resulting.
Let’s not stamp out brutality and aggression for our game, please, but let us ensure that the idiotic few who defend this barbarism are removed from positions of responsibility. There is no room for gouging, or them, in our beloved game.
What do you think? Does more need to be done to condemn these comments in public? Do these people deserve their positions of power in rugby? Is gouging simply the fault of the player involved? Can lengthy bans be justified as a means of determent?
By Justin Aylward