Rugby Union: Curse of a citing for sore sides

Jonathan Davies argues that European union is in need of a firm helping hand
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The Independent Online
What rugby union needs is a jury of experts armed with the top video-watching equipment, including slow-motion and close-ups, and on permanent stand-by to zoom in on any suspect behaviour in our top games. Only then, perhaps, will we be spared the dangerous controversy that has surrounded some European Cup ties recently.

The business of clubs citing opposing players for foul play after a game just doesn't work and is more likely to create long-lasting bad feeling between clubs that can be counter-productive, if not explosive. Following the problems between the French and Welsh clubs, have come the bitter rows between Harlequins and Cardiff which have shown us how easily a "you- cite-us-and-we'll-cite-you-back" attitude can arise.

Not that I lay all the blame at the door of the clubs concerned. The European Rugby Cup people have displayed a level of inconsistency when issuing punishments that is far from suitable for a competition that has a such a high profile.

The ban of 90 days on the Cardiff second-row forward Tony Rees for stamping on, or "wilfully kicking" as the official version has it, his Quins opposite number Gareth Llewellyn last month seems out of all proportion when you consider the butting and kicking from the French that has gone unpunished. The subsequent trouble stems from that severe punishment and the fact that it was as a result of Quins citing Rees.

Cardiff then felt they had a case to cite Quins outside-half, Thierry Lacroix, for kicking scrum-half Steve Wake in the head during the same match but because they hadn't studied the video within the necessary 48 hours they were unable to do so. Instead they asked Quins to take action but they refused.

It all left a bad odour that was still in the air when the two teams met at the Stoop last weekend. The rugby wasn't affected, it was a magnificent game, but yet another incident arose when Mike Hall received two broken ribs that will keep him out of action for a month.

The Quins back-row Laurent Cabannes was shown the yellow card for stamping on Hall but the video showed that the injury was caused a couple of seconds previously by Jason Leonard. Hall tackled Keith Wood but he fell on the wrong side of the ball and before he could roll away, Leonard came diving in and his knee went into Hall's ribs. The player was already lying injured when Cabannes joined the fray.

I'm not accusing Leonard of hurting Hall deliberately and the incident might have gone unnoticed had not the Rees row put the game under the spotlight, but we examined the video on BBC Wales television and there was every justification for the incident to be studied by officials. As it was, Cardiff declined to cite the player because they don't want to get into a citing battle but they felt there was a case for Quins to take action.

Quins are unwilling to do so, which is hardly surprising. I fear it is asking too much for a club to punish one of its own players. All this arose from two excellent games which in no way could be described as dirty and what remains is a very unsatisfactory situation that can only be resolved if the ERC appoint an independent panel made up of experienced former referees and players to make judgements on these incidents.

Foul play in rugby is as old as the game itself but it has rarely taken place under such intense conditions. The European Cup has brought together clubs from different countries not used to playing each other under such pressure. It will get worse unless the ERC can impose discipline in a more consistent manner.

It is already clear that the same clubs are going to be competing in the final stages year after year and if bad feeling keeps getting stoked up between them every vital match will be a potential flashpoint.

Players will respond to the toughest discipline if they feel it is unbiased and evenly applied. A jury they can respect would be a sound step in that direction. As it is, too much resentment is building up.