Rugby Union: Nones' case may signal new era of legal wrangles

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The Independent Online
RICHARD NONES, the thirtysomething Colomiers prop banned for two years for alleged eye-gouging in the dying seconds of last Friday night's fractious Heineken Cup match at Pontypridd, has lodged an appeal in an effort to prevent his career sliding prematurely into the past tense. Nones was dismissed on a touch-judge's advice by Jim Fleming, the international referee from Scotland, after a flare-up at the final scrum of the game and was summarily dealt with by the match commissioner, Huw Lewis of Wales, who made his decision without the aid of video footage.

No hearing date has been fixed, but Nones will appear before a fully independent three-man tribunal staffed by delegates from England, Ireland and Italy. In the absence of hard evidence from the BBC cameras at Sardis Road, the tribunal may well take the view that discretion is the better part of disciplinary valour, especially as Nones' entire professional future is at stake. "Safe" convictions for gouging are notoriously difficult to obtain, as World Cup officials discovered last month. Not even a graphic newspaper photograph apparently showing Garin Jenkins, the Wales hooker, being gouged by an anonymous Argentinian was considered sufficiently watertight to bring anyone to book.

There will be more appeals at the end of the campaign if the eventual champions of both the Heineken Cup and the European Shield miss out on the lucrative spoils of participation in 2000-2001. Roger Pickering, the tournaments' director, confirmed yesterday that "there was no machinery to give either an automatic place in next season's elite competition", thereby leaving the door open for a spectacular controversy should this season's winners be denied an opportunity to defend their title. Having removed the raison d'etre of the second-tier Shield competition at a stroke, the custodians of cross-border rugby may now find it impossible to negotiate big-money sponsorship for the tournament.

There will be no problems attracting backing for a British league if Tom Walkinshaw, the Gloucester owner and chairman of English First Division Rugby, succeeds in launching such a tournament next season: Allied Dunbar, the current sponsors of the English Premiership, make no secret of the fact that a cross-border tournament would suit their commercial profile. However, Walkinshaw is playing with political fire in seeking support for his idea from fellow club owners.

The Rugby Football Union in general and Fran Cotton's Club England committee in particular are likely to go ballistic over moves to introduce a new 30-match competition that would inevitably overload leading players, destroy the Tetley's Bitter Cup, undermine the Heineken Cup and establish a ring- fenced elite at the top end of the club game.

Only recently, Walkinshaw himself poured public scorn on the British league concept. "The idea will only be resurrected by someone who has nothing better to do on a wet Tuesday afternoon," he said last season, after initial moves towards a tournament involving the leading English, Scottish and Welsh sides had run out of diplomatic steam. But that was then. The part-owner of the Arrows Formula One motor racing team now seems to have been seduced by the prospect of a guaranteed pounds 1m per club per season - and, perhaps crucially from a business viewpoint, a four-year "no relegation" clause.

Walkinshaw is confident of getting the various national unions on board, but they will almost certainly demand far too much control for the owners' liking. In which case, the depressing spectre of the European Court will again haunt the professional club game. In signing up to last spring's Paris Accord - the agreement that ended the English boycott of European Cup rugby - EFDR pledged to abandon their attempt to establish commercial rights through an court application. The application has not been withdrawn, however; the English clubs will not do the necessary until they are satisfied that European Rugby Cup Ltd has kept to the bargain. This one could run and run, sadly.

Meanwhile, the three southern hemisphere superpowers want "video referees" to adjudicate on contentious decisions in next year's Super 12 and Tri- Nations competitions. Given recent Heineken Cup matches, the French would happily settle for a referee in front of a television if they could do away with the referee on the pitch.

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