Tuilagi should be banned – but let the punishment stop there

In the muddy world of rugby, the centre's punch on Chris Ashton was no worse than nicking the beer kitty and shouldn't affect his England chances, argues Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online

Being the youngest of six professional rugby-playing siblings, Manu Tuilagi is regarded as the baby of the union game's first family. Some baby. The third and most destructive of the punches landed by the teenager – he does not turn 20 until tomorrow – on the England wing Chris Ashton during last weekend's Premiership semi-final derby between Leicester and Northampton was either an unmitigated disgrace or an absolute corker, depending on the eye of the beholder, and it earned him a place in a rogue's gallery populated by the likes of Colin Meads, the notorious All Black forward who became known as "The Godfather". Now, there's an idea for a nickname. Manu, the Godbrother.

What Tuilagi did to Ashton at Welford Road, a modern sporting equivalent of the Elizabethan bear garden, was not to be recommended, especially in an age of high-definition slow-mo replays, multiple camera angles and holier-than-thou hypocrisy masquerading as informed punditry. (Players of earlier generations committed far more heinous crimes, some as cowardly as they were distasteful, but as precious few of them were screened live on television, their sins rarely found them out.) We can rest assured that the Samoan-born, England-qualified centre will be banned, probably for the best part of three months, and will therefore miss the Premiership Grand Final at Twickenham in 11 days' time, along with a second-tier Churchill Cup tournament that would have underpinned his challenge for a place in the red-rose squad for the forthcoming World Cup in New Zealand.

There is no question about any of this, just as there is no question of rugby union somehow operating in "a different moral stratosphere" to football, as has been suggested by one esteemed sportswriter. Football is a game of physical contact, and long may it remain so, but its particular form of contact is some way short of extreme. In rugby, played by consenting adults who tacitly accept a degree of how's-your-father whenever they take the field, pretty much anything goes, especially in the darkened recesses of scrum, ruck and maul. Punching has never been considered one of the game's deadly sins – unlike gouging, biting, head-kicking, shaving on match day and running off with the beer kitty – and while Tuilagi's brand of pugilism was miles over the top, it was not premeditated. The man-child lost his rag in a wildly combustible atmosphere that would have tested the patience of a saint. He will serve his time and he will learn his lesson, so enough already.

The question is quite another. Will the England manager Martin Johnson – hardly one of life's "poor little lambs who have lost their way", as the hoary old rugger-bugger bar song has it – back his instincts and include Tuilagi in his 30-man squad for the global gathering in All-Black land, despite the events of Saturday afternoon? In the days leading into the semi-final, there were a good many whispers that the youngster was in the frame, not just for Johnson's 60-strong World Cup training squad but for a seat on the plane to Auckland. The whispers are still out there. Those close to the manager believe Tuilagi will be capped in August, when the warm-up games with Wales and Ireland are played, and duly named in the travelling party.

There are chimes of truth about all this. The two centre positions are England's weak points – transparently so, whatever the supremely defensive Johnson may say to the contrary – and the midfield options are as thin as gruel. Shontayne Hape and Mike Tindall, the incumbents, are neither dynamic nor creative, although both of them enjoy a tackle, and of the existing back-ups, Matt Banahan is almost as short of experience as Riki Flutey is of form. Meanwhile, the so-called "lightweights" – the Shane Geraghtys and Mathew Taits – have blipped their way clean off the radar. Of the younger bunch, Tuilagi is the one most obviously blessed with the physical equipment to make such All Blacks luminaries as Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu and Sonny Bill Williams think as much about their ribcages as their off-loads.

The pace-power synthesis is in the Tuilagi genes. Like the brothers who went before him into top-level rugby – the forwards Fereti and Henry, the backs Alesana (alongside whom he plays at Leicester), Anitelea and Vavae – he hails from the modest village of Fatausi-Fogapoa, on the sparsely populated Samoan island of Savai'i. In an interview with this newspaper before the last World Cup in 2007, Alesana reminisced about growing up with an oval ball amid the tiny communities and lava fields of home.

"We all played every day: my brothers, my friends, everyone," he said. "We would play at school, then go home and play until dark. I always played in bare feet, even though the field was covered with rocks and I cut myself to pieces. And it wasn't 'touch rugby'. I wanted to copy my heroes in the national team, to be big and strong like them. In the rugby we played as children, we ran through people."

Anyone still wondering why the Tuilagis perform the way they do? While all five of his elders and not-so-betters represented, and in some cases still represent, their native country, Manu came to England early and committed himself to the red-rose cause, playing age-group rugby with such conspicuous success that he quickly became the talk of the coaching fraternity, in much the same way that a certain Jonathan Peter Wilkinson did back in the mid-1990s. He was not so much a bright prospect as a stone-cold certainty to make the grade professionally.

It would take more than an opposing midfield to worry him. Enter the Home Office, who worried him sick. A little over 12 months ago, he was told that as he had arrived in the country on a six-month holiday visa and overstayed his welcome by years rather than days, deportation was on the cards. Three local MPs – Keith Vaz, Edward Garnier and Andrew Robathan – campaigned on his behalf and secured a reprieve. There is now no issue with his residency status.

It will take more than a House of Commons delegation to get him off this latest hook. Yesterday, as the Leicester club and the England management awaited a formal citing ahead of the inevitable hearing before the Rugby Football Union's chief disciplinary officer Judge Jeff Blackett, bets were being laid on the length of the equally inevitable ban. According to the official sanctioning guidelines, the minimum suspension for a top-of-the-range punch – and Tuilagi's was a Maserati effort – is eight weeks. The maximum is a year. We can confidently expect Judge Blackett to impose something far closer to the former than the latter.

It was entirely fatuous for Richard Cockerill, the Leicester coach, to plead "Wengeritis" on Saturday: even if he failed to spot the punch in real time, he could not have missed the big-screen replays broadcast around the stadium. Yet it was equally fatuous of people to saddle up their high horses and race off into the distance in a Grand National of pontification. Worse things, infinitely more dangerous to life and limb, happen in professional rugby every weekend of the season. The Godbrother was wholly in the wrong, but that doesn't make him a Godfather.

Packing a punch five other belters

Gareth Chilcott

England v Australia (1984)

Chilcott celebrated his Test debut by thumping Nick Farr-Jones. "In the first minute," the Bath prop recalled, "he said 'Come on fatty, catch up'. It took me a while, but I caught up eventually."

Wade Dooley

England v Wales (1987)

The early exchanges in this Five Nations international had a "wild west" quality and no one was wilder than Dooley His punch on Phil Davies left the Welsh No 8 nursing a broken jaw.

Wayne Shelford

New Zealand v Wales (1987)

The fearsome All Black wreaked retribution on the Welsh lock Huw Richards. When Richards returned from la-la land, he was sent off. Shelford? He stayed on.

Ngalu Taufo'ou

Tonga v England (1999)

Taufo'ou was a late arrival at a mass brawl in this World Cup pool match, but he made up for lost time by banjaxing Richard Hill from behind.

Rupeni Caucaunibuca

Fiji v France (2003)

His World Cup try-scoring was extraordinary. So was the haymaker he landed on Olivier Magne, which earned him a two-match ban.