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Rugby Union: Yates' six-month ban under fire for being too lenient

Kevin Yates is to appeal after being found guilty of ear-biting and banned for six months. But for many in rugby union the real question is whether the sentence was too light. David Llewellyn reports.

When the South African prop, Johan Le Roux, was found guilty of biting the ear of New Zealand's Sean Fitzpatrick in July 1994, he was banned for 19 months. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Le Roux expressed some surprise yesterday when Bath's Kevin Yates, having been convicted of the same offence, was given a sentence some 13 months shorter.

"If Kevin Yates is definitely guilty, then I would have expected a longer ban," Le Roux, said. "In my case I was provoked and retaliated. I was wearing a mouthguard and there were no scratches or stitches. I was banned for 19 months and for as long as I live I will feel that New Zealand treated me unfairly. It cost me a place in the World Cup winning squad and about three million rand (pounds 375,000) in lost earnings."

Le Roux, who is on the verge of Springbok recognition again, called for worldwide unification over sentences. "The International Board should set a ban for every sort of incident, stamping, punching and of course biting, because having received a ban for defending myself I had expected whoever was responsible in this case to get two years." All the same Le Roux added: "The six-month ban does not mean he has been treated leniently. It will stay with him for ever."

Yates, 25, was found guilty of biting the ear of London Scottish's Simon Fenn in a Tetley's Bitter Cup tie last month. The incident took place following a scrum and resulted in Fenn needing 25 stitches in his ear.

The verdict was reached in the early hours of yesterday morning by a three-man Rugby Football Union disciplinary panel chaired by Michael Burton QC. It followed after some 25 hours of deliberation spread over four days. Yates maintains his innocence and has already lodged an appeal, but unless it succeeds he will be suspended until 10 July 1998 - the panel deeming that having already been banned since the offence took place on 10 January this should count towards his sentence. Yates has also been ordered to pay pounds 23,000 costs.

As the verdict filtered out to the rugby world yesterday, there was a growing feeling that the punishment was a compromise. London Scottish had originally said they wanted a minimum 12-month ban, while others had said that two years would be too short.

Jeff Probyn, the former England prop and current RFU council member, said: "Kevin has denied it all along, but if he did it, the sentence isn't long enough. The weight of written evidence - because there was no television evidence - seems to be against him and he was found guilty. On that basis a six-month sentence seems a little bit light." Another former international prop, Scotland's David Sole, said: "If he has been told he is guilty, he shouldn't be playing the game of rugby."

However the indications yesterday were that even if his appeal fails, once the sentence is served Yates will be able to resume his career. The England coach, Clive Woodward, said: "We have to go along with the RFU decision. Quite clearly he cannot be considered for England until next season. I just hope he returns fit, in form and available to resume what looked like being a promising international career." In addition, Bath hinted that they are unlikely to sack him, although they are still planning a club disciplinary hearing. That will not take place until after Yates' appeal has been heard.

Richard Yerbury, the chief executive of London Scottish, was happy with Yates' punishment but very unhappy that his club were being asked to pay some of the costs. "We have been left with a bill for, effectively, helping to police the game," he said. "Our costs are nearly double those of Kevin Yates, which is quite alarming. We think it is totally unjustified that we should be paying for that. We don't believe London Scottish should have to pay to seek justice for an innocent victim."

London Scottish have also made it clear that Fenn may still pursue a civil action for damages arising from the incident.