James Lawton: It is time for the game to stop tolerating acts of gratuitous violence

The fierce protests when Schalk Burger was banned for gouging were evidence of rugby's refusal to look at itself with anything like detached rigour
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The Independent Online

In rugby union it still seems you can reach out for the euphemism of your choice while reacting to a piece of raw violence – just as long as it stops short of gouging the victim's eyes or stamping on his head.

This is the thugs' charter that has landed the game that so often appears to be locked into adolescence in its latest moral pickle.

This one revolves around the question of what to do with Manu Tuilagi.

One point of reference may be that the language of the law of the land is much less forgiving. It means that what the prospective England World Cup player Tuilagi did to Chris Ashton at the weekend comes into a quite specific category. It surely must be called assault causing actual bodily harm.

Speculation within the game is that Tuilagi, who punched Ashton three times in the face and was given, laughably enough, a yellow card, will be handed a suspension of around two months, which will cause him to miss one important club match and cast doubt about the appropriateness of his joining Ashton on the plane to New Zealand for the big tournament.

This may cause something of a pause in the powerful, Samoan-born centre's career momentum but he might just profitably reflect on the fact that had he done to Ashton in the street what he did on the field he would now be looking at rather more dislocating possibilities.

He would be at the mercy of the court's discretion, which is to say the choice between a hefty dose of community service or several months in one of Her Majesty's guest houses.

It has to be time for rugby union to put aside the old days of physical anarchy, the rum toleration of gratuitous violence, and instead of sneering at the grotesque theatrics of their football cousins, start to put their own dishevelled house into something like order.

If there was ever an incentive for this it was the Bloodgate affair, which provided such staggering evidence of detachment from the demands of everyday morality.

Now rugby's legal guru, and enforcement officer, Judge Jeff Blackett has to set the punishment for the utterly unbridled behaviour of Tuilagi.

If Blackett does indeed settle for a suspension of somewhere around two months, it may sound shockingly lenient to casual observers of right and wrong but it does indicate, when you consider past levels of toleration, a dawning awareness that an old culture is no longer viable.

One catalyst, no doubt, was the ridiculous reaction of South Africa's coach Peter de Villiers to the outrage which came when his player Schalk Burger was caught in the act of eye-gouging the Lions' Luke Fitzgerald.

De Villiers declared, "If we are going on like this, why don't we go to the nearest ballet shop and get some tutus and get a dance shop going? There will be no eye-gouging, no tackling, no nothing and we will enjoy it."

Burger was banned for two months – a decision that provoked fierce protests in the South African team. It was stunning evidence of rugby's refusal to look at itself with anything hinting at detached rigour. Soon enough, De Villiers was wheeled in to apologise, but for what, he did not seem entirely certain.

Two years on, English rugby cannot afford such self-indulgence. It needs to say that before Manu Tuilagi plays for his adopted country he has to show signs of growing up. Also required is a little evidence that the game which nurtures him has any real clue about how to make the point.