Blackett opens window on summary justice

Speed the essence to Twickenham's Mr Discipline
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The Independent Online

His Honour Judge Jeff Blackett once chaired a disciplinary hearing at which Martin Johnson was charged with kneeing and striking an opponent. "I gave him a homily about him being a captain of England and an icon of the game," Blackett recalls. "It was almost the same as a court martial. I wasn't quite wagging my finger saying 'don't do it again' but it was like telling a young sailor he'd overstepped the line." Johnson appealed his five-week ban but gave the judge a positive write-up in his autobiography. Not long after, Blackett was appointed the chief disciplinary officer of the Rugby Football Union.

The role is a voluntary and unpaid one which Blackett, 51, fits around his full-time occupations as Judge Advocate General for the armed forces and a circuit judge in the south-east of England. He brings to it a sharp legal mind and a feel for rugby he earned playing as a centre for US Portsmouth, Hampshire and the Navy. "Hammered the Army, 7-3 at Twickenham in 1981," he reports in conversation at his chambers in Chancery Lane. "Gave the scoring pass for our try." Duly noted, sir.

Without the need to don his day-job wig and gown, Blackett has become a recognisably central figure in rugby's changing disciplinary processes, which are almost all to do with the sport going open 11 years ago. "As soon as the old amateur era was over the players wanted to contest the disciplinary system," he says. "They started to bring their lawyers along." In response, the International Rugby Board directed that all disciplinary hearings would be conducted by a lawyer, a senior ex-player and a rugby administrator.

Blackett, who also serves as a match commissioner in the Heineken Cup and a judicial officer for the Six Nations' Championship and World Cup, believes in summary justice. A red card offence in the Premiership is now dealt with on the following Tuesday, with any appeal two days later, and a citing case is brought within 10 days. In high-profile cases such as the nine-week ban he gave France's captain Fabien Pelous for use of the elbow last autumn, Blackett likes the written findings to be available to the press even as they are being read to the player. "I know discipline is of interest," he says, "and I would rather get it done quickly and openly rather than have weeks of speculation."

On behalf of the RFU this season Blackett has handed down three-week bans to Premiership players Stuart Abbott and Paul Hodgson for versions of the so-called spear tackle, which he would like to "drive out of the game". When it came to the allegations made by spectators during a Premiership match last weekend that Northampton's New Zealander scrum-half Mark Robinson had been racially abusive to Andrew Higgins, a Bath player, Blackett decided within a quickfire 48 hours that a hearing would not be necessary. "There was no prospect of a conviction," he says, and what's more he wanted the world to know it. With expletives notably not deleted, his judgement was published by the RFU on Monday evening - with a series of asterisks inserted to get it past the Union's internet firewall.

Blackett makes repeated references to the players as role models and to looking after the image of the game. He has recently been to the Football Association's headquarters to discuss the need for written reasons in disciplinary judgements but, at a time when football's probity is constantly under scrutiny, its overt chicanery - as in diving to get a free-kick or imploring referees to show the yellow card - has yet to show its ugly face in rugby. Blackett says he has only once been moved by that kind of cheating to write to a player who had clearly knocked a ball into touch and then raised his arm to claim the line-out.

The greater challenge, it would seem, is marrying rugby's increasing public popularity with its inherent nature of multiple collisions, legitimate contact and, for want of a better word, violence. "I'm not trying to change the robust and tough nature of rugby," Blackett says, "because that's why we play it and love it, and the spectators love it. But it's a controlled and lawful robustness, not gratuitous violence. There is no need for most of the real foul play - punching, stamping, turning players upside down in the tackle. Most if not all of our players are responsible and do not want to injure anyone. That doesn't mean they are not sometimes reckless."

Blackett was called to the bar in 1983 and served in guided missile destroyers and frigates before leaving the Navy in the rank of commodore to become Judge Advocate General in 2004. He is seen as a force for applying civilian standards to courts martial, and drew criticism from the then defence secretary John Reid for appointing a civilian High Court judge to the trial of British servicemen currently under way at Bulford near Salisbury. "In rugby we are trying desperately to drive inconsistency away," says Blackett. "There is a view from the grass roots that the RFU are soft on international players, and a view from the Premiership that we are tough compared with the southern hemisphere. Some of the disciplinary sanction entry points are, in my view, too low. An eye gouge or an intentional stamp on the head or a tackle spearing an opponent into the ground should take a player out of the game for a long time."

The Robinson case, Blackett admits, raises a new question of impropriety. And, characteristically, the judge has wasted no time in delivering a verdict. "There has always been colourful language on the rugby pitch and, the more players become role models, the more they have to restrain that. We're not going to legislate that you can't say 'bastard' or 'bugger'. What we will say is you've got to be aware of your surroundings. It's not sensible to give a tirade on the touchline when there's mums and children sitting in the stands."