Tuilagi receives ban of just five weeks for punching Ashton

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The Independent Online

Manu Tuilagi, the highly rated Leicester centre, celebrated his 20th birthday yesterday and duly received a generous present from the Rugby Football Union. The governing body handed the Samoan-born player a five-week ban for his "time gentlemen please, that's all for tonight" punch on Northampton's international wing Chris Ashton during last weekend's highly combustible Premiership semi-final at Welford Road. He can consider himself extremely fortunate.

Earlier in the day, the Northampton director of rugby, Jim Mallinder, had expressed his concern over the incident. "It's a tough game, is rugby," he acknowledged. "It's hard and it's physical. But you can't have that sort of thing going on, whether it's in a fourth-team game down at the old boys' club or in the semi-final of the Premiership, under the spotlight."

Tuilagi will miss his club's grand final date with Saracens at Twickenham on Saturday week and has been barred from next month's Churchill Cup tournament for good measure. None of this will help the uncapped youngster in his late challenge for a place in England's 30-man squad for the forthcoming World Cup in New Zealand, but the national manager, Martin Johnson, is still likely to include him in a much larger training group due to gather at the end of next month. If Tuilagi cuts the hot stuff there, he may yet find himself on the plane to Auckland.

Quite what Mallinder thinks of the RFU disciplinary panel's reasoning – it cut the minimum 10-week sanction for a "top-end" punch by 50 per cent after deciding that Ashton had provoked the assault by shoving Tuilagi in the back – is anyone's guess. What was perfectly clear yesterday was his dissatisfaction with other events that unfolded during the semi-final, not least the gasket-blowing behaviour of his opposite number at Leicester, Richard Cockerill.

"It's no different to players losing control on the field," Mallinder said in typically measured tones after being asked to reflect on the Welford Road pandemonium. "Passion is a part of sport, and one of the beauties of sport is controlling the emotion. Talking to the referee's assessor, shouting at the touch judge or gesturing at the ref doesn't make one little bit of difference as far as I'm concerned. The job is about giving clear directions, clear messages. That's how I go about my business.

"I don't want coaches to be shut away in a glass box. I like being in the atmosphere, being out there where everything's going on. Things happen in most games but when you go to Leicester in particular, it's a pressure cooker: people are so close and confined. I think it's up to the directors of rugby to take some responsibility."

The defeat by their near neighbours hurt the Saints in more ways than one, but Mallinder considers his players to be in decent shape ahead of their last match of the campaign: the small matter of a Heineken Cup final with Leinster, the 2009 champions, in Cardiff on Saturday evening. "It's a week too soon for Tom Wood, who isn't 100 per cent fit," said the rugby director of England's impressive new flanker, who recently underwent surgery to repair a hairline fracture of the leg. "That's our only issue. The way people have trained this week, you wouldn't know they're at the end of a long season.

"Leinster are a quality side who like to operate at a quick tempo, and we know we'll be stretched at times. But unlike last week, we know this is our final game for a while. We can throw everything at it."