Rugby: Suspended Yates protests innocence over bite

Besieged Bath officials yesterday suspended Kevin Yates, their England prop forward, pending further investigations into the biting incident that left Simon Fenn, the London Scottish flanker, with a serious ear wound.

Chris Hewett reports on the latest developments in a saga that has shamed rugby.

Kevin Yates insists he is innocent of sinking his teeth into the left earlobe of Simon Fenn during last Saturday's Tetley's Bitter Cup tie at the Recreation Ground and intends to prove it. His two front-row colleagues, Federico Mendez and Victor Ubogu, are equally insistent that their reputations have been needlessly dragged through the mire and that legal action is an option. This sorry tale has a long, long way to run.

Yates, a 26-year-old loose-head prop with the brightest of futures in Clive Woodward's England international set-up, is in serious danger of seeing that future disappear into the ether. Bath's decision to suspend him pending further inquiries into a grotesque assault did not, in so many words, convict him of attacking Fenn. However, the accusatory finger is now pointing in one direction, and one only.

Sensibly, Yates withdrew from today's England session at Bisham Abbey. He remains part of Woodward's squad - the national coach offered the player his full support last night - but will now concentrate on co-operating with Bath's investigation, led by Tony Swift, the chief executive, Andy Robinson, the head coach, and Tom Sheppard, the company director whose legal background makes his an influential voice in the matter.

After spending his early years in Canada - aptly enough under the circumstances, he was born in Medicine Hat - Yates moved to England with his family and learned his rugby at school in Calne, a Wiltshire town close to Bath. A physically powerful and generally good-humoured character, he broke into the England A squad for the 1995 tour of Australia and Fiji before earning two full caps in Argentina last summer. Last week, he made Woodward's squad ahead of several better known props.

Swift declined to discuss the possible punishments awaiting Yates should guilt be proved - he emphasised that the player was maintaining his innocence - but a two-year ban, enough to effectively cripple a vibrant young career, was being seen in many Rugby Football Union quarters as inevitable on conviction. The damage to Fenn's ear was far greater than that inflicted by Johan le Roux, the Springbok prop, on Sean Fitzpatrick in 1996. Indeed, it looked considerably worse than the injury suffered by heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield at the hands - or, rather, teeth - of Mike Tyson.

Bath remained adamant last night that they knew of no conclusive evidence against Yates and Swift insisted that the video evidence he had viewed showed nothing to incriminate the player. The chief executive was far more forthcoming about London Scottish's decision to cite all three front- rowers for foul play, rather than a single figure.

"We are extremely annoyed that London Scottish did that when only one player could have been responsible," he said. "The damage done to the reputation of innocent players is great. The club reserves the right to support these players in any legal action they may wish to take."

Mendez, the Argentinian World Cup hooker, broke the wall of silence that had been quickly constructed by the Bath players in the aftermath of Saturday's match by protesting his innocence yesterday. It was understood that Ubogu, an experienced England tight-head whose lack of proximity to the Fenn incident made him the least likely of suspects, had consulted his own legal advisors.

"For them to have had their reputations tarnished in this fashion is totally unacceptable and we're angry, very angry, about it," Swift said. "If they want to take the issue further, it is a matter for them. What I will say is that this rugby club will assist and support them if they decide to take action, just as we would assist and support Kevin should the evidence prove inconclusive.

"We've looked at one totally inconclusive video sent by London Scottish - we are still waiting for further evidence they promised us yesterday - and we've interviewed our players. We've spoken to Kevin on three separate occasions and each time he stated his innocence. However, we've taken the view that it is right to suspend him at this stage.

"He's extremely upset, obviously. Over the years he has been a fabulous servant of this club and he has a good disciplinary record. When will our investigation be concluded? It depends when we get the evidence people are promising us."

Worcester suspended the flanker Chris Scott from last night's Tetley's Bitter Cup tie against Bristol following allegations that he broke the jaw of Nottingham's Nick Carroll in a league game on Saturday. Otley have suspended the Western Samoan flanker Lafaele Filipo for a month after an alleged punching incident.

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