Rugby Union: Ryan's belated ban poses new threat to authority

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Dean Ryan, the Newcastle captain, yesterday picked up a one-month ban for a punch he threw seven long weeks ago. Is the dissemination of rugby justice ridiculously slow, or simply ridiculous? Chris Hewett reports.

The bruised and battered opponents of Dean Ryan will testify that the former England No 8 and career hard-case has seldom shown much concern for the ethics of rugby, such as they are. Yesterday, however, Newcastle's veteran skipper was at the centre of a cautionary tale containing an obvious moral: namely, if you decide to throw a punch, even in retaliation, do not on any account do it in the presence of television cameras.

Ryan was suspended for 28 days by the Rugby Football Union's disciplinary panel for running the best part of 20 metres to land a big right hand flush on the cheekbone of Nathan Thomas after spotting the Bath flanker stamping on a team-mate, Tim Stimpson - an offence for which Thomas was sent off. The problem? The incident happened fully seven weeks ago, on the first day of the season, and went before the RFU only because Cliff Brittle, the management board chairman, saw the kerfuffle on the television and took umbrage.

Newcastle, fully aware that punches of similar weight are thrown in non- televised matches wherever and whenever rugby is played, are apoplectic. They claim that because Ryan was dealt with on the pitch - Steve Lander, the referee, yellow-carded him - he has now been punished twice for the same offence. They also point out that the RFU's inexplicable delay in moving against the player means that he will miss important Allied Dunbar Premiership fixtures rather than matches in the European Conference, a competition the Geordies consider to be of secondary importance.

Rob Andrew, the director of rugby at Kingston Park, described the ban as a "totally inappropriate use of the regulations" and confirmed that the club would take legal advice as well as lodge an appeal. Indeed, they named Ryan in their side to face Northampton tomorrow night, even though his suspension was timed to begin yesterday.

The charade was another example of the rugby authorities' failure to put in place a sensible, workable disciplinary system. Last month, the directors of European Rugby Cup Ltd imposed record fines on two clubs, Brive and Pontypridd, following a late night bar-room brawl between players involved in an explosive Heineken Cup match earlier that day. By insisting the fines related to a mass punch-up on the pitch rather than the far more serious violence off it, they set the most awkward of precedents. Sure enough, the pigeons came home to roost last week with Llanelli refusing to pay a pounds 10,000 fine resulting from their ill-tempered match in Pau.

While Ryan was belatedly being ordered to wear the hair shirt, the RFU was celebrating a new pounds 20m shirt deal for the England side. Nike, among the very biggest players in sports sponsorship worldwide, are now the official manaufacturers, suppliers and distributors of a revamped national strip that heralds a return to predominantly white shirts. The agreement covers a six-year period up to and including the 2003 World Cup and Nike will also sponsor the odd individual Test match at Twickenham, starting with this autumn's England-South Africa match.

Jean-Claude Skrela and his fellow French selectors have recalled three England-based Test veterans to their international squad for this month's Latin Cup matches with Argentina, Italy and Romania. Philippe Saint-Andre, the Gloucester wing, returns as captain along with Thierry Lacroix and Laurent Cabannes, of Harlequins.

Cabannes will be playing alongside another back row legend next year when Zinzan Brooke, the All Black No 8, joins Quins from Auckland. The Londoners finally completed the signing at the weekend after a seemingly endless round of talks lasting more than a year.