Rugby Union: An eerie silence for a prop used to bonding

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The Independent Online
APART from a passion for the taste of cauliflower, it is hard to imagine what strange urge persuades a rugby player to bite a chunk out of an opponent's ear. But motivation was probably the last thing on the minds of the Rugby Football Union's disciplinary panel when, in the early hours of Tuesday morning, they came to the conclusion that the Bath prop Kevin Yates was guilty of biting off the ear-lobe of the London Scottish flanker Simon Fenn.

The six months' ban they imposed has been the subject of much discussion since, as has the future of Yates who faces a hefty legal bill, which could become crippling if he decides to appeal, and a possible civil suit for damages from Fenn.

Meanwhile, the question why a player of his good reputation would perform so despicable an act doesn't seem to be of any particular interest to those in the thick of the debate. They could fairly reply that the only person to whom that question can be put is the perpetrator and since Yates still protests his innocence the lack of an answer is hardly surprising.

But it is a question that the entire game should address if it is serious about the lust for strong discipline displayed so fearlessly at times like these. Perhaps rugby has reached the stage at which it is no longer sufficient for individuals who are responsible for deliberately injuring an opponent to be punished in isolation.

It is difficult to apportion collective responsibility for the work of one set of teeth but the team ethic has been advanced so proudly in these early years of professionalism that the further implications of it cannot be avoided. The buzz word has been "bonding", a process by which the elements involved in the making of a team, the minds, bodies and spirit, are welded together into one unit.

The sight of Yates after Tuesday's verdict was to be reminded that "unbonding" can be a far more rapid operation. He looked totally alone, still expressing his innocence, and conveying little impression that we were seeing a part of a closely knit force whose slogan would be not dissimilar to that of the Three Musketeers.

It has been said that the length of his sentence - the South African prop Johan Le Roux received a 19 months' ban in 1994 for a bite on the ear of New Zealand's Sean Fitzpatrick that didn't even draw blood - and that it took 25 hours of deliberation was an indication of the doubt in the minds of the panel of three. There is no clear proof of Yates' guilt and it was written evidence, some from Bath players, that finally swung the verdict against him.

Yates must also pay costs of pounds 23,000, which could be more if London Scottish press for the full amount they say the case has cost them, plus his own legal bills which will soar if he goes ahead with his appeal. By no means the most satisfying aspect of the whole affair has been the ponderous and costly disciplinary action. There isn't a proper appeal procedure in place yet, so there is no indication of the cost or time involved if he decides to fight on.

How much Bath will help him with the financial penalties is not yet known. The initial impression was that the club might decide to terminate his contract; still a possibility if he appeals and fails. The latest indication, however, is that they will stick by him and may even find him some community or promotional work while he is sidelined. Whatever he has done, Yates is still the best loosehead prop in England and at 25 years old has time to recover from this experience.

None of this is an attempt to condone what he has been judged to have done. There can be no place for that sort of behaviour in the game but it requires a monumental effort to be moralistic about rugby. Biting, which is in danger of becoming a fashionable transgression, has a large recoil factor, but there are more perilous sins.

When the England lock Martin Johnson, captain of the Lions, punched the All Black scrum-half, Justin Marshall, from behind in the England-New Zealand international at Old Trafford in November he did so with a force that could have reduced Marshall's ears to ornament status. The referee didn't see it and Johnson received a one-match ban from England.

Rugby has never been less than a violent game and most of those associated with it have accepted, mostly humorously, that sometimes there is dirty work to be done and the game is highly selective about what it condones and what it condemns.

When they were all amateurs, the inclination was to let them get on with it. They created their own culture of brutality and for most of the time were proud of it. Now that new attitudes are blowing across the face of the game, they may feel less comfortable about the viciousness but one doesn't sense a genuine attempt to curb it.

In the privacy of the dressing-room before a match all manner of ritualised bonding and psyching-up goes on. How much of an effect does all that have on the mind-set of the players? Kevin Yates is a very good prop and as tough as one needs to be in the most macho of positions. Those he meets in front-row confrontations at club level report that they have not recognised any lurking appetite for wrongdoing. He is regarded as jovial bloke and there are certainly no teethmarks in his record.

I began by puzzling over what plants in a man's mind the urge to inflict such an awful injury. Instinctive retaliation, cold revenge or just another way of being beastly to the enemy? Just as uncertain is whether he, alone, should be held responsible for the birth of that urge and for the lack of restraint that caused him to succumb to it.

I have no idea what the Bath coaches say to their players before they go out for the conflict. They may well warn them not to stamp on the opposition or stiff-arm them. Maybe, the last words they hear as they disappear up the tunnel are "and, remember, definitely no biting".

But if all that ring in their ears are the urgent exhortations that have become the tom-toms of the pre-match pep-talk, then the culpability for what happens in the furnace into which a front-row forward is pitched may be justifiably shared.

I fully support the clubs in the struggle to retain control over their players, the source of their funding and the structure of the season. They should be just as eager to accept their share of the responsibility for ridding the game of such ugliness. The club should bear the ultimate liability for those they put on to the pitch. Let them, as well as the culprits, be punished. We might be surprised at how quickly rugby's image improves.

ENGLAND can provide solace for Brazil who were beaten 1-0 by the USA in the Concacaf Gold Cup semi-finals in Los Angeles last week. The defeat went down like a set of lead maracas in Rio de Janeiro where words such as shame and disgrace were common.

They need fear not. England, even with Tom Finney, Billy Wright, Wilf Mannion and Stan Mortensen, lost 1-0 to the Americans in the 1950 World Cup. Everyone here thought it was the end of the world, the biggest disaster that England would ever experience and the lowest point the nation's football fortunes would ever reach. But it wasn't, was it?