Chris Hewett: This era of eye-gouging must come to an end

For the sake of the game, officials need to clamp down on the most heinous of rugby sins
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The Independent Online

As in life, there are seven deadly sins in rugby: gouging, biting, head-kicking, bag-snatching (an Australian euphemism for an assault on a player's unmentionables), spear-tackling, shaving on match day and running off with the beer kitty. Of these, the last two are marginally the least heinous, while the first is very definitely furthest beyond the pale. Unfortunately for the image of the union game, this is fast becoming the age of the gouger.

Only a blind man, so to speak, can have failed to recognise the sharp increase in attacks on or around the eyes in recent seasons. In the British Isles alone, there have been three high-profile cases, involving Dylan Hartley, the promising young Northampton hooker banned for six months in 2007; Neil Best, also of Northampton, who was suspended for 18 weeks at the start of last season; and Alan Quinlan, the Munster flanker, who would have played on this tour but for a 12-week punishment imposed following the Heineken Cup semi-final with Leinster. Television footage showed Quinlan running his fingers across the eyes of Leo Cullen.

In addition, the Romanian hooker Marius Tincu was at the centre of a rugby-style international incident in October when, after playing for the French club Perpignan in a Heineken Cup pool match against Ospreys, he was suspended for 18 weeks after being found guilty of going for the eyes of the prop Paul James. Perpignan claimed there was no independent evidence, firm or otherwise, against their player; dismissed the disciplinary tribunal as being worthy of a "banana republic"; and threatened to bring a civil action under European law. The Catalans ignored the suspension and played Tincu at domestic level. The row continued for the rest of the campaign.

Gouging is generally considered a speciality of the French club game; indeed, John Daniell, a journeyman lock forward from New Zealand who made a living from playing Top 14 rugby, recently went into print with a description so graphic it might have come from the pen of Marquis de Sade. But there is no Tricolore monopoly on the practice. Last Saturday, both the South African flanker Schalk Burger and the Italian No 8 Sergio Parisse, two of the best players in the world, were caught indulging while on international duty.

Leaving aside certified sadists and budding psychopaths, why would anyone in his right mind take what might be described as the King Lear approach to rugby, which is plenty rough enough when played within the laws? One reason is to instil fear into an opponent: once a player starts wondering whether he will complete a game with his eyesight intact, his level of physical commitment inevitably diminishes. But in general, such acts have nothing to do with malice aforethought. They are usually the consequence of frenzy or frustration, both of which are dangerous elements of the rugby psyche.

It cannot go on. Unfortunately, the lack of sentencing consistency among the judicial officers who deal with such cases makes it more likely gouging will continue, not less. Every time union officials try to make a distinction between gouging and "an act contrary to good sportsmanship by making contact with the face in the eye area", they do the sport a disservice. These people should tell it like it is and act accordingly.

Eye-catching Gougers and their punishment

* 1992 Richard Loe, Waikato v Otago: 26-week ban

* 1997 Troy Flavell, North Harbour v Wellington: 12-month ban ( reduced to three weeks on appeal)

* 1999 Richard Nones, Colomiers v Pontypridd, Heineken Cup: two-year ban

* 2007 Dylan Hartley, Northampton v Wasps: 26-week ban

* 2008 Marius Tincu, Perpignan v Ospreys: 18-week ban

* 2008 Neil Best, Northampton v Wasps: 18-week ban

* 2008 Seru Rabeni, Leicester v Saracens: 14-week ban ( nine weeks added after Rabeni played sevens tournaments while banned)

* 2008 Mauro Bergamasco, Italy v Wales: 13-week ban

* 2009 Sergio Parisse, Italy v New Zealand: eight-week ban

* 2009 Olivier Azam, Gloucester v Cardiff: nine-week ban

* 2009 Alan Quinlan, Munster v Leinster, 2009: 12-week ban

* 2008 Marius Tincu, Perpignan v Ospreys, Heineken Cup 18-week ban (Tincu continued playing during his ban period)