Lee Mears' Lions Diary: A front-row view of the gouging debate

The inside story of the South Africa tour in an exclusive column from the Bath, England & Lions hooker
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The Independent Online

Most of the headlines this week have been about Schalk Burger's ban for making contact with Luke Fitzgerald's face during the second Test last Saturday, when we should have been reviewing an exciting match instead. Gouging the eyes is totally unacceptable and very dangerous, but there is a debate to be had about why there seem to be more and more cases of this nature.

This Lions tour has coincided with referees being told to allow players to stay over the ball for much longer after a tackle is made. Years ago, if a player was lying over the ball, you would use your boot to ruck him out of the way. Nowadays any boot on body is penalised by the referee, and "playing the player" has become much more common. Why? Imagine someone my size trying to move a big second row the size of Simon Shaw. If you can't get under him, the closest bit is trying to get around the neck and shoulder area. This is definitely distinct from attacking the head and deliberate eye-gouging.

I wouldn't give Burger any sympathy, either way, due to the unwritten code that forwards don't do to backs what they do to fellow forwards. Luke is a wing and should have been easy enough for a forward to drive off the ball. I didn't see the incident directly, but I was sitting near the halfway line among the non-playing Lions, and one of the big screens got stuck for about two minutes showing a freeze-frame of Burger's hand on Luke's face. I just saw that and thought, "he's in trouble". There are players I've played with or against who have had lengthier bans for gouging, but I haven't seen the judgement or asked Luke what he said at the hearing.

The most frustrating thing for me about the Boks winning that match and taking the series was we stopped playing after the first 20 minutes. The South Africans got more physical and we got dragged down to their level, trying to put in huge hits and run hard into them. It did us no favours because we lost some of our best players, injured. I also think we stopped pushing on for more points, when we were a long way in the lead.

We were so much better when we played the patterns, and we must stick to that for tomorrow's final Test. It's disappointing not to be involved myself, and the funny thing about rugby is that there were a few things wrong with the line-out last week which got overshadowed by other aspects. For the boys playing tomorrow, it's no good trying to run into or over the top of the Springboks. They're big units and that's exactly what they want us to do.

We have unfinished business

There were undoubtedly a couple of days after the second Test when everyone in the squad was down. We had lost the series when we had all given as much as we possibly could. But it's brought us together as well and on Wednesday before training Ian McGeechan told the squad we're better than "3-0" and there was still a job to do. There isn't one player who would rather be somewhere else and some of them know this is their last chance to pull on a Lions shirt. That should be enough motivation in itself.

Beer and big beasts – our natural habitat

About half the squad met up on Monday for a two-day safari, we had a few beers and went on a couple of game drives. "Big Ted" Andrew Sheridan looked like he was in his natural habitat and we considered leaving him to help the elephants out against the rhinos. We've had Andy Powell continuing his attempts to learn German and Euan Murray's funny "I'm back" DVD, left behind after he went home injured. The tour has been a fantastic experience and I'm staying on to drive the Garden Route, before a holiday in Mauritius.

In association with Savanna cider www.savannacider.co.uk

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