Rugby: Case of try, try, try again for Twickenham's conscience

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The Independent Online
If the law is an ass, rugby's new breed of litigiously motivated lawyers are queueing up to apply a well-aimed boot to its hallowed buttocks. As the Kevin Yates ear-biting affair moves into its second week, Chris Hewett talks to Twickenham's very own Lord Chief Justice.

It was not an auspicious beginning. "I was a solicitor until they struck me off," said Roy Manock, the Rugby Football Union's disciplinary officer, irreverently known to players and coaches alike as "His Old Fartship". There was a theatrical silence as Manock savoured the impact of his words, followed by a mischievous chuckle. "Actually, I applied to be struck off for sound financial reasons when I decided I'd had enough of my legal consultancy work. There was no scandal, I'm afraid."

Phew. The climate of professional rugby being as it is - the legal adviser has joined the agent and the personal masseuse in the modern player's holy trinity of support staff - the last thing the game needs is a dodgy brief in control of its court system. In fact, Manock takes his role extremely seriously; so seriously, in fact, that he has written an appendix to the RFU's disciplinary rules setting out the principles of natural justice as they pertain to the 15-man code.

There are those who wonder whether rugby union and natural justice might not be mutually exclusive. Nick Popplewell, the Irish international prop, managed to pick up three separate convictions for the same punching offence last spring - a yellow card from the referee, a fine from his club and a ban from Manock's panel - while this season, a second Newcastle player, Dean Ryan, collected a ban that was so retrospective as to border on the posthumous.

And now we have the Kevin Yates affair, which has propelled the sport so deeply into the legal mire that it would be no surprise to see George Carman, Perry Mason and Horace Rumpole fighting each other for a piece of the action. The absence of a smoking gun - or, in this case, a set of exposed incisors - is not the only fly in this particular jar of ointment. By comparison, the Jarndyce v Jarndyce wrangle in Charles Dickens' Bleak House seems positively straightforward.

Victor Ubogu is threatening to bring a defamation action against London Scottish, who are in turn wondering whether Philip Bliss, Bath's honorary surgeon, might not have stepped out of line by questioning whether Simon Fenn's left ear was bitten at all. Bath are bristling at suggestions that, in the absence of a guilty verdict, the RFU might impose sanctions on the club rather than on any one individual, while the suspended Yates is receiving legal advice on an hourly basis.

"I'm reluctant to talk about a specific case in progress," said Manock in time-honoured legal fashion. "However, I can say that the onus is on London Scottish to prove their case against the player concerned. They've made the allegation, after all. But the standard of proof is not one of beyond reasonable doubt, as in criminal cases, but on the balance of probabilities. We will consider video evidence and player statements and make a judgement based on what we find."

Manock's panel will consider the affair from scratch, even though Bath are scheduled to hold their own internal disciplinary hearing on Tuesday. What, pray, is the point of Yates going through two interrogatory ordeals rather than one? "It's a matter for Bath," said Manock. "We will look at this irrespective of what they decide to do. No, I don't think the Bath hearing is a total irrelevance - it could prove a very useful exercise in discovering exactly what happened and anyway, I applaud the fact that they are acting so responsibly - but this is a serious matter that has tarnished the image of the game and left a false impression as to the standards of discipline in rugby in general."

All the same, there appears to be more than a degree of duplication. Although Manock's panel, an ad hoc band of legally articulate regulars and co-opted occasionals, considers each and every sending off involving a player from the two Allied Dunbar Premiership divisions and the top two divisions of the Jewson National League, they are often happy to rubber- stamp the internal punishments meted out by club managements. On the other hand, they sometimes intervene more fully, particularly in cases where gross misdeeds have been perpetrated in the presence of the great god, television. A clear case, surely, of: "Throw a punch by all means, but not while you're on the telly."

"I appreciate the situation is seen as being haphazard, but the system is evolving and when I took on this job two years ago I stated that the revision of our disciplinary procedures would take four years to complete. The decisions to act in the Popplewell and Ryan cases were mine. I considered them particularly bad incidents that occurred in the full glare of publicity and that as such, they harmed the game. Should we let miscreants off the hook, just because other misdemeanours go unnoticed?

"A number of areas need addressing. There is a great body of opinion in the southern hemisphere against the current restrictions on citing [players can be cited only if the incident was not dealt with by the referee] and I am coming round to the view that suspensions should be calculated in terms of matches rather than days and that a certain number of yellow cards should carry a fixed penalty. These are things I want to discuss with the clubs.

"But the panel's powers are already extremely wide. Provided a hearing is conducted fairly and in line with the dictates of natural justice, I am perfectly happy that any sanctions we choose to impose are insustainable under both English and European law."

There will almost certainly come a time when that last assertion is tested to the full. You sense that Manock would relish such a challenge to his authority; he happily compares his panel to "the old touring assizes" and rather like a certain Judge Jeffries, he is no one's idea of a soft touch.