Peter Bills: Varying punishments for eye-gouging are baffling

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The Independent Online

When is an eye gouge not an eye gouge? Or to be more specific, when do the rugby authorities take a draconian approach to the offence and when do they feel more tolerant?

I ask the question in all innocence because there appear to be some alarmingly different sentences handed down for this offence. Before we investigate them and probe some possible reasons for their quite differing standards of seriousness, we ought to say that, South African coach Peter de Villiers excepted, most people in the game regard the offence as abhorrent.

De Villiers issued his famous, fatuous remark about people who can’t accept eye gouging going to buy a nice tutu at the ballet shop, after Schalk Burger was cited for gouging against the British and Irish Lions back in 2009.

Burger gouged Irishman Luke Fitzgerald yet received merely an eight-week suspension. That was regarded with general derision in most of the northern hemisphere yet largely accepted south of the equator.

But since then, the levels of suspension for those convicted of gouging have become altogether more severe. It was as though the disciplinary officers felt the need to make a stand, issue a serious statement in the light of what was seen as excessive leniency in Burger’s case.

So the executioner got to work. The Paris-based club Stade Francais had two players sent off in the same match, for similar offences against the same player, Ulster’s Ireland international flanker Stephen Ferris. One, scrum half Julien Dupuy, was banned for 24 weeks and, after appeal, had it reduced by one week.

But Stade’s tight head prop David Attoub got a stunning 70 week suspension by the English RFU disciplinary officer for what he called ‘one of the worst offences of this kind he had ever seen’.

Now I raise this topic here because we have just had another case of alleged eye gouging to come before the RFU officer, that of England wing Mark Cueto. Now, given that the Rugby World Cup kicks off in less than five months’ time, a great deal of public debate was stirred at the prospect of Cueto receiving a lengthy ban. Indeed, the possibility of him missing the tournament was raised.

The disciplinary officer has the powers, as we have seen, to impose swingeing punishments for the worst offences. And even if he deems such an incident to be only in the range of moderately dangerous, what is termed a mid-range sanction, the recommended starting ban is 18 weeks.

Thus, many eyebrows were raised this week when Cueto was convicted of such an assault but given only a nine-week suspension. That, most conveniently, ensures he will be available again for England’s World Cup warm-up matches in August.

Now no-one is suggesting that anyone from Twickenham ‘got at’ the judge in this particular case, or indeed any other. I am sure that they are all honest, decent upstanding men only interested in fair play and applying the laws.

Yet the Cueto case still leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Afterwards, his apologists claimed that it was not a serious assault because the victim, ironically a player Cueto used to know well, did not make a formal written complaint.

Well, how much weight should that carry in mitigation? Might not Cueto have leaned on an old pal and pleaded with him not to make a fuss because it could have cost him a World Cup place? Surely not. But the disingenuous thought is there, however outrageous.

Yet more than that, the so-called 'victim' afterwards said that he wasn't gouged at all. Well if that is so - and he ought to know - why on earth has Cueto been banned for nine weeks? What for?

What is undeniable is the hugely varying levels of punishment handed down on eye gougers. Thus, perhaps some of those in the northern hemisphere who huffed and puffed at Schalk Burger receiving only an eight-week suspension, might now feel that the wheel has turned full circle.

Or, are the disciplinary officers saying, ‘Ah, sometimes an eye gouge isn’t quite what it seems’. If so, we are surely straying into very dangerous territory here.