A post from guest writer Jez Denton
Jez is a former player, coach and administrator of Rugby Union who grew to love the game after being introduced to it at secondary school in early 1980’s. An all round sports fan he’s also played cricket, golf, darts and aunt sally to varying degrees of ability. He follows Saracens, Essex County Cricket Club and West Ham United. Outside of sport he enjoys music, quizzing and has recently begun to get involved in local politics in the town he lives in Banbury, Oxfordshire. He’s also started raising money for the Motor Neurone Disease Association through his Get Shirty for Motor Neurone challenge, wearing a different shirt every day since the start of August raising over £2000 in sponsorship.
Over recent weeks we have seen a number of high profile disciplinary cases in the game of Rugby Union which have left me questioning the wisdom of those processes. To the point that I believe there is an urgent and necessary need to overhaul and review not only the consistency of the application of the laws in relation to foul play and player behaviour but also the way decisions are made and by whom.
I come at this problem, not only as a watcher of Rugby Union, but also as someone who has been involved in disciplinary procedures as a defendant but also as a member of a disciplinary panel, at county level. I understand the difficulties and complexities of the disciplinary process but I also feel well placed to be able to identify areas of concern and offer potential solutions.
The instigation for this is the recent high profile cases, particularly of Saracen’s winger Chris Ashton in comparison with other cases such as Worcester player Tevita Cavubati citing and subsequent ban for biting. Now, I admit to being a Saracens supporter, and so realise there may be a level of bias in my opinion. However, having seen the comments that have been made by respected ex-pro’s and commentators such as Tom May and David Flatman who have pointed out the inconsistency of a ten week ban for accidental contact with the eyes compared with a nine week ban for an admission of biting, I feel justified in my thoughts that yet again the disciplinary procedures are ridiculous, inconsistent and possibly affecting the image of Rugby Union in the eyes of the supporting public.
I should point out, firstly, though, that I am a great believer in the fact that Rugby Union is very good at setting an example for foul play, and dealing with miscreants as and when incidents occur. And certainly a lot better than other sports such as Football, as Rugby Union sees far less incidents and when judgement is handed down, even if unfair and inconsistent, Rugby Union accepts judgement far better. However, I think that is in danger of being eroded the more we see decisions such as recent ones in the sport.
So what are the issues? I see three main issues that I feel need looking at. Firstly, the way bans are decided on, secondly, the intransigence of the decision makers and lastly the decision makers themselves.
How bans are decided.
Currently, the law book decides on what the minimum ban is. So, if like Chris Ashton, you are found guilty of contact with the eyes, whether intentional or accidental, you start with a ten week ban to which weeks can be added depending of severity and intention, previous behaviour and remorse. Remorse to me is the most contentious issue here. For instance, in Ashton’s case, he was adamant that it was accidental and that he didn’t intend to do what he did. However, if he had turned round and said yes I did it, but I’m very sorry he may well have been given a lesser ban. But that still goes down on that players record that he is a ‘dirty’ player. That’s plainly not fair on the clean player who makes a mistake as the ‘dirty’ player, who should be treated more harshly, but isn’t because he shows ‘remorse.’ That needs to be ended.
But the main problem here is the fact that the laws say that this is the ban that should be given down for that offence. There is no room for common sense, no room for interpretation (which is ironic considering the whole point of having laws is for them to be open to interpretation on the field) and therefore no authority is given to the disciplinary panels to interpret in a fairer and more consistent way.
So, how do you solve this? Quite simply I would change the emphasis from the there being a minimum ban to a maximum ban. This would work by saying that any sending off offence committed, either awarded on the field of play or subsequently by citing, carries an automatic three match ban. You then say what the maximum ban is that can be given for an offense. So, for instance in Chris Ashton’s case, he was accused of a sending off offence for which he is given a three match ban with, based on the severity of the accusation, a maximum ban of say 16 weeks. The disciplinary panel then asks some simple questions of the player, with the input of match officials, other players and coaching staff involved in the game and video evidence if available. The first question should be is the player guilty of the offence. If no, clear him and rescind the ban. If guilty, you can then start asking questions and looking at evidence for reasons to increase the ban. So was it intentional, yes or no, was it reckless, did it cause injury and so on. Dependent on the answers the panel should be able to build up the ban, consistent with the offence committed. At that point, only, should they take any remorse into account. By doing this the clean player who makes a mistake is less likely to be unfairly treated in relation to the ‘dirty’ player who acts intentionally.
This moves us onto intransigence. It seems to me that the whole ethos of the disciplinary committee is to almost rubber stamp the decisions made by either the referee or citing commisoner. How many times do we ever see a player ‘get’ off a citing or red card? Very rarely I’d suggest. Now I’m not suggesting that all decisions made are wrong, or that there are not cases to be answered but that more so that there is a reluctance to ever go against what the referees or citing officers say. I certainly think this is going to be more of an issue at junior levels. Certainly from my experience it would be so. A few years ago, when captaining a team at the junior club I played at, we were reffed by a guy who had a poor game. So much so that one of my players, the hooker, did a bit of a Dylan Hartley and after a decision said, ‘that’s a f****** joke, ref.’ Quite rightly he was sent off, he was disciplined by the club, banned for a period of time and reported to the RFU. When the paperwork came back we were astonished to see that the referee had reported the player as saying ‘you are a f****** joke, ref.’ We felt very strongly that the semantics of what was said and what was reported would have an adverse effect on the players participation in the sport so therefore we appealed. At the appeal we represented evidence from players and club officials from both sides who were present at the game to confirm that what the player had said was different as to what was reported by the referee. Despite this the panel agreed with the referee and subsequently banned the player for a whole season. That player, for a small mistake, that he bitterly regretted, walked away from the game, never to play again. No common sense was shown, but instead a blind refusal to accept anything other than the referee is always right. This intransigence needs to be combatted.
But how do you combat intransigence? This is the biggest problem and brings us to my third issue, which is the make-up of panels themselves. The men who sit on these panels are quite often lawyers or judges, some of whom may have played a few games at prep school in the 1970’s or a couple of games for Old Codgerians V’s. They don’t have a feeling for the modern professional game. They don’t understand the speed, the pressure and the impact of the modern game. So, what to do to change this? What needs to be done is that the make-up of the panel needs to change with the addition of retired referees and ex-professional players. Players such as those mentioned before like Tom May and David Flatman. Guys who have not only got recent experience in the game at the very highest levels, but who have also shown themselves to be intelligent and incisive commentators and pundits in the media. By all means still use the legal chaps currently sitting on panels, but add different experience too. For instance a panel made up of a legal chap, David Flatman who can give empathy for the player if needed, and a retired referee who can examine evidence from the point of view of the options to the referee on the field, would, I believe, taking into account the other solutions I have offered, create a fairer and more just disciplinary procedure.