Sam Wallace: A tale of two sports – how rugby league has allowed an assault on good sense

Football, especially with players of Pryce's profile, has been much more stringent
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The Independent Football

Imagine a scenario in which a leading England footballer, estranged from his wife, decides – after a few drinks – to visit her new place with a friend and intimidate her. After a bit of pushing and shoving, the footballer and his mate further disgrace themselves by committing assault.

Fast forward to the court case in which both, having originally pleaded innocent, change their pleas to guilty and are told by the judge that they face prison sentences when they return to court the next month. The following night the big-name footballer in question plays for his club and scores a hat-trick.

If Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, John Terry or any other famous English footballer, was to be found guilty of assault the outcry against them playing for their clubs between court and sentencing would be deafening. You would hope that any Premier League manager, however loyal to his players, would recognise it as inappropriate to pick him as he awaited sentence. Even if he did not, it would surely be blocked by the club's hierarchy.

As for playing for England, it would be out of the question. The Football Association judge each case on its merits but public disapproval would come down on the likes of Rooney like a ton of bricks. In fact it would be more than a ton of bricks, it would be more than all the bricks it took to build Gary Neville's big house in the countryside. The offender would instantly be the poster boy for the social disintegration of British society. He probably would not even make bail.

Yet exactly this scenario took place last week in rugby league with Leon Pryce, England's star player, at the centre of it. Last July, Pryce and Stuart Reardon went to the home of Reardon's estranged wife, Kay, where Reardon assaulted her and Pryce assaulted her new partner Damon O'Brien. In court on Thursday they changed their pleas to guilty on assault charges, they are sentenced on 23 April and on Friday night Pryce scored three tries for St Helens against Wakefield Trinity.

How can that be right? The judge told Pryce, whom the court was reminded has a previous conviction for glassing someone in a pub, that he will, in all likelihood, have to go to prison. Whether St Helens consider that an empty threat or not there is no way it is appropriate for the player to continue playing in the interim. Asked on Friday night whether Pryce, perhaps the closest thing the England rugby league team has to a Rooney, should have been left out, the St Helens coach, Mick Potter, said he would only have dropped Pryce if the player had asked him to.

The Rugby Football League, who govern the sport, said this weekend that they were allowing "the criminal justice system to take its course". They might have thought that the criminal justice system is already trying to tell them something. Pryce has now admitted his guilt on an assault charge. Yet the RFL say he would still have been available to play for the England rugby league side had there been an international between Thursday and his sentencing.

In comparison, English football, especially with players of a similar profile to Pryce, has been much more stringent. In 2003, Alan Smith was dropped from the England squad when it emerged that he had been arrested over a bottle-throwing incident, although he was never subject to a criminal prosecution. There was an apology from the FA that year when it emerged that Nicky Butt had won three England caps having been on bail over assault allegations. All charges against him were dropped.

Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate were both banned from selection for England from 2000 to 2001 while they faced assault charges. They played for their clubs until the verdict, which only found Woodgate guilty of affray. Unlike Pryce, neither were found guilty of assault. Gerrard is currently on an affray charge (the assault charge against him was dropped) but he, unlike Pryce, has not yet been found guilty of anything.

Hands are wrung over Rooney's temper or Ashley Cole's recent contretemps with the law, yet when you compare their misdemeanours to those of Pryce you wonder what all the fuss is about. Rooney's character is called into question when he lashes out at a corner flag; Pryce admits to assault and is still playing. Cole gets drunk and acts like a bit of a prat; Pryce gets drunk and assaults someone.

Joey Barton admitted his guilt on an assault charge in May but restrictions meant that his admission could not be reported until he was sentenced the following month. Had that guilty plea been a matter of public record, there would have been enormous pressure upon Newcastle not to play him in the run-up to his sentencing. You would hope that, unlike St Helens, they would have taken notice of it.

The RFL may argue that Pryce and Reardon's offence is at the less serious end of assault although they should take note of the judge's verdict that the pair had left the couple they victimised "terrified". Of course, English football is far from perfect and it has a much higher profile than rugby league but the profile does not make a shred of difference when you consider that there is always a right thing and wrong thing to do whatever the sport.

Platini takes a selective view on heritage

Great stuff last week from Michel Platini, the man who has taken it upon himself to preserve the integrity of English football by insisting it returns to a time when it could only afford the rubbish foreign footballers as opposed to the good ones. The same Uefa president who is horrified by English clubs straying from his notion of Englishness.

Yes, Platini wants to merge the Belgian and Dutch leagues. This is the same man who questioned whether English clubs were English any longer because they had foreign owners and foreign players. Evidently, his regard for the heritage of the Dutch and Belgian leagues is not quite so strong. Feyenoord would miss out under his proposals; still at least Steve McClaren's FC Twente would be in there.

Is Platini a traditionalist or anti-traditionalist? We should be told. Otherwise it might be assumed that he is just making it up as he goes along.

A clean start for England – or a new cash-in?

Philosophise on the new England shirt at your will. A simple, no-frills design for these straitened, austere times? The pure, virginal white intended to herald some kind of fresh beginning? A poor-taste joke on Fabio Capello about Italians and white flags? Or perhaps just another new design to earn Umbro and the FA a few quid.

Umbro make a tremendous fuss with all their shirt-launch hyperbole. I even heard them say that the shirt was "unearthing the tailoring presence in our heritage". Isn't that the French Huguenots? Anyway, if England win the World Cup next year Umbro will be able to glue a Three Lions badge on a bin-liner and they still won't be able to make them quick enough to keep up with demand.

Queiroz fluffs lines

Carlos Queiroz's audition to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United continues in distinctly unimpressive style. Saturday was his Portugal team's fifth World Cup qualifier and their third successive 0-0 draw (this time at home against Sweden). They have just six points from a possible 15 and could well not qualify for the tournament.

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