The England wing Chris Ashton, no stranger to controversy over the last few months, was the big loser yesterday following a mass trial of those involved in the punch-up that enlivened last weekend's Premiership derby between the East Midlands rivals Leicester and Northampton at Welford Road. Ashton sparked the incident by dragging his direct opponent, Alesana Tuilagi, into touch by the hair – a highly visible offence, given the extravagant nature of the Samoan's coiffure – and was banned for a month.
Ashton will miss Northampton's back-to-back Heineken Cup meetings with the high-flying French club Castres – games they must win to retain a realistic hope of making the knockout phase of the tournament – plus important Premiership games against Bath and Newcastle over the Christmas period. Tuilagi, who was sent off for his contribution to the free for all, escaped further punishment; the Rugby Football Union's chief disciplinary officer Judge Jeff Blackett deeming the red card to have been a sufficient penalty.
A second Northampton international, the England captaincy contender Tom Wood, also appeared before the judge, having been dismissed along with Tuilagi. He too was spared further grief and can continue playing. So can a fistful of other participants in the fun and games: the Leicester backs Geordan Murphy and Horacio Agulla, and the Northampton Test forward Courtney Lawes. They were effectively given a retrospective yellow card and granted permission to carry on regardless.
Having denied the charge, Ashton was told in no uncertain terms that his behaviour had been unacceptable. "We accept that this started by accident, but it became clear that at some stage Ashton knew what he was doing," Blackett concluded. "If you pull somebody by the hair there is an element of denigration and this act was a catalyst for a mass brawl that ... significantly affected the image of the game."
Ahead of the hearings, the Leicester director of rugby Richard Cockerill had made his views known in typically frank and forthright style. "Our game with Northampton was a classic – a great contest and a great advert for rugby," he pronounced, leading the charge against the latest outbreak of sanctimonious claptrap to plague a sport that has taken pretty much all the piety it can bear just recently. "You get guys coming from all over the world to play in these matches because they want to experience these occasions.
"Yes, we saw some fisticuffs, but we can't sanitise the game too much by pulling guys off the field when their crimes are far from horrendous. Rugby is a physical sport, and the people who play it are physical. Human nature dictates there are quiet sorts and aggressive sorts. If you're aggressive, the sporting arena is about the only place it can come out. Occasionally, there will be flashpoints. The players know they can't throw cheap shots – they know they can't go around gouging and the suchlike. But the odd bit of sparring? That's not going to hurt anyone, is it?
"Take the emotion out of the contest, and the contest is the poorer for it. I'm not saying fighting is right, but you can understand it in the heat of battle – and there wasn't one person watching at Welford Road on Saturday, or on the television come to that, who didn't want to see what was going on. No one said 'Ooh, there's a fight', and looked away.
"I took my son to his Under-9s game on Sunday morning and everyone was talking about what a great game they'd watched the day before. And they were right. What a game! What a spectacle! I don't want to see horrendous violence on the field but there is some beauty in the aggression we see in a game of rugby."
Cockerill argued – rightly as it turned out – that Tuilagi had no case to answer. He was not, however, best pleased with the Samoan's younger brother Manu, who missed the game yet still threatened to involve himself from his seat in the dugout. "Manu warmed up with the team but I was unaware that he sat in the dugout," said Cockerill, who watches games at Welford Road from an elevated position in the stand. "He ran down the touchline. He didn't do anything, but he shouldn't have run towards the incident and he won't be doing it again. I've spoken to the whole squad about discipline, because we don't want people being banned. But it's a double-edged sword. You want players to be physical and committed, but..."
He added that Manu Tuilagi, so-called "star" of the England ferry-jumping escapade in Auckland at the end of a World Cup campaign that had already been badly sullied by off-field misbehaviour, would be fit to face Clermont Auvergne in this weekend's big Heineken Cup tie at Stade Marcel Michelin. "He'll give us some options and he's likely to start, because he's pretty good," he said. "But we have Billy Twelvetrees and Matt Smith playing well too. Who starts, and who comes off the bench? It's a great headache to have. I've spent most of the season trying to find centres. This weekend, I'll have three."
In the first of yesterday's hearings at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, the Northampton flanker Phil Dowson admitted inflicting an illegal tackle on the Saracens full-back Alex Goode 11 days ago and was suspended for a fortnight.