New Zealand rugby tour: the night it all kicked off
What goes on tour stays on tour, they say. But not if you are an England Rugby Union player facing disciplinary action after a night out in Auckland. Jonathan Brown digests the official report into their misbehaviour
Friday 11 July 2008
Staying out until dawn, downing flagons of alcohol, inviting strangers back to hotel rooms and missing training the next morning – England's rugby players must never again be allowed to behave in such a way on overseas tours, an official report concluded yesterday.
The Rugby Football Union investigation into last month's allegations against members of the England squad in New Zealand found that there was "insufficient evidence of any illegal activity" between an alleged victim and four players.
The RFU's chief disciplinary officer, Judge Jeff Blackett, conducted a forensic inquiry for the RFU which details the night of 14 June, which began with the defeat by the All Blacks. A relaxing team meal led to a frenzied bar crawl and ended with an 18-year-old woman sharing a bed with two England players.
The RFU's investigation found those two players – London Irish winger Topsy Ojo and Harlequins full-back Mike Brown, both 22, – guilty of misconduct. Ojo was fined £500 and reprimanded for staying out all night, while Brown was fined £1,000 for the same offence and for arriving late for a physiotherapist appointment the next morning. Three other players, Dave Strettle, Danny Care and an unnamed fifth team member, were cleared of any wrongdoing. Strettle was not among the quartet wanted for interview by New Zealand's police.
The report details how after a team meal at Auckland's Hilton hotel, Ojo and Brown met the unidentified woman while out drinking in the city's Pasha bar. Free alcohol had been laid on for the players, who were accompanied by security guards. The large group went on to another bar with a free tab, Degree, and after 15 minutes proceeded to the now-notorious Pony Club, where they had to foot their own bill. Ojo and the 18-year-old kissed and she gave Brown her phone number before leaving.
An hour later, after an exchange of texts, the two men decided to follow her to the Spy Bar, with another player in tow. This time it was the 14st3lb Brown – by his own admission now "a bit tipsy" – who danced with, and kissed, the woman. "They remained at that club and then left," reports Blackett. "By now it was about 7am. She told [Brown] her car was parked near the team hotel and so went with them." When they arrived at 7.30am, Brown says he asked her if she wanted to come to his room and she accepted.
Ojo went to his own room for a quick kip before an 8.15am physiotherapy assessment. Afterwards, he went to tell Brown he had missed his own appointment. Brown, Blackett writes, "was woken by a loud bang on the door... He quickly dressed and went downstairs."
Ojo, meanwhile, took the opportunity to become better acquainted with the 18-year-old woman.
"Very soon after," according to the report, "the unlocked door interconnected with the next room opened." In bounded Strettle and Care to tell the absent Brown he was going to be late for a "rehabilitating" swimming session. But instead they found another colleague in Brown's bed: "When they went into the room they observed Ojo and the complainant. They stood at the door for a few seconds and then closed it and left. They both said there was no element of voyeurism and were actually quite embarrassed to have disturbed them."
Ojo apparently picked up his swimming trunks and accompanied the young woman in the lift to the corridor. Other players describe her as "not being at all distressed, but a little embarrassed".
Blackett says that he found the players "honest and truthful" in their accounts of the night – and that they were stunned by the allegations of sexual assault. The woman spoke to New Zealand police but never made a formal complaint and declined to co-operate with the RFU investigation.
Refusing to make "moral judgements" on the "consensual activities of young men and women", he conceded that "this sort of activity has occurred on rugby tours from time immemorial", although it was a "sad fact" that newspapers were now in the market for salacious details of the young mens' private lives. Mr Blackett concluded that the players, all of whom strenuously denied the allegations, had been subjected to "trial by media", adding that they remained in "the intolerable position in which the allegations remained unchallenged". He said he found independent evidence provided by witnesses unconnected with the allegations that corroborated much of the four players' accounts.
Of the alleged victim, whose solicitors claimed that she had been taken back to the Hilton hotel where she was "sexually violated" by four players and suffered injuries which caused medics to refer the matter to the police, he said he was unable to "conclude that what she says occurred actually happened".
Blackett also found that it would be "unfair" for the management to be blamed for what it described as "any perceived indiscipline or misconduct". "No doubt in the past England players on tour have stayed out too late, drunk excessive quantities of alcohol, invited guests back to the team hotel and missed physio appointments or training the next morning." It said the First Test had been "brutal in intensity" and the players were "entitled to some relaxation".
But he added: "There is clearly a need for tighter rein on players when they are on England duty and they all need to be given clear guidelines about the limits of acceptable behaviour." What's more, "It was, perhaps unwise for the squad to share a hotel with over 20 members of the British press, many of whom are skilled in listening to snippets and creating stories from them."
Summarising, the disciplinary chief said: "Without any credible or tested evidence of serious wrongdoing it is impossible to gainsay the players' own accounts of what occurred. This case has thus boiled down to no more than errors of judgement by young players which are insufficient in themselves to effect future England selection."
Blackett declared the players' conduct unsuitable for international sportsmen: "Such activity is now inconsistent with the life of an elite professional rugby player in the modern era and with membership of a team seeking to be the best in the world."
Playing away: the verdict
These are extracts from the report of His Honour Judge Jeff Blackett, RFU Disciplinary Officer, into the allegations arising from the England tour:
* Whether a single man should take a single woman back to his hotel room during a rugby tour will now become a matter for the tour management. It has been said that this sort of activity has occurred on rugby tours from time immemorial and that it may be hypocritical to take disciplinary action today. However, players must constantly remind themselves that they have high public profiles and there will be those who will actively seek stories about their personal lives.
* On this tour there was no prohibition on taking female guests back to the team hotel... In my view that prohibition should now be included as part of any new code of conduct. There is clearly a need for a tighter rein on players. This is most important in relation to very young players who do not yet have the life skills to cope with sudden stardom.
* It was, perhaps, unwise for the England squad to share the same hotel as over 20 members of the British press.
* This case has boiled down to no more than errors of judgement by young players. No doubt in the past England players have stayed out too late, drunk excessive quantities of alcohol, invited guests back and missed physiotherapist appointments or training. Such activity is now inconsistent with the life of an elite rugby player.
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