A little over a year ago, a 34-year-old former Royal Marine by the name of Scott Leonard lay in a Dagenham hospital bed, blood pouring from a deep wound no more than a centimetre below his right eye. The inside of his nasal passage was clearly visible, and according to the doctors treating him, he was extremely fortunate not to have been blinded. The cause of the injury? The stud of a rugby boot. The outcome? The abrupt end of a 20-year career in the sport and months of bitter disillusionment.
Now 35, the victim is the brother of Jason Leonard, the most decorated player in the history of the English game and a revered figure wherever rugby union is played or watched or discussed. Scott Leonard believes the one-inch hole in his face was the result of a deliberate stamp, as do three of his team-mates who witnessed the incident. But, for a variety of reasons that go to the heart of the continuing problems in policing the grass-roots game and protecting those who play it, the individual suspected of causing the injury was never required to answer a charge of violent conduct.
He did not escape entirely. It quickly transpired that he should not have been on the field at all: already under suspension, he was not playing for his own club, but for another side with whom he was not registered. Unsurprisingly, the local disciplinary committee took a very dim view of this behaviour and banned him for a further 20 weeks. But Leonard still feels betrayed by the system. To use the modern jargon, he has not been given "closure".
The matter was reported to the police within 24 hours of the incident, but after an investigation taking the best part of six months, during which the accused player insisted the injury had been caused accidentally, the Crown Prosecution Service decided against taking action on the grounds that witness statements provided by Leonard's colleagues contradicted each other in the fine detail.
At the same time, Leonard's club cited the rival player, but a leading member of the disciplinary committee advised Leonard that, in the absence of hard evidence, a "satisfactory outcome" was unlikely. The foul play allegation was never considered.
Judge Jeff Blackett, the Rugby Football Union's chief disciplinary officer, revisited the case at Leonard's urging and found to his considerable alarm that the county official had acted "inappropriately" and made "serious errors". However, Blackett decided that no retrospective action could safely be taken for fear of leaving the RFU open to legal action for abuse of process. Leonard is now taking advice on bringing a civil case against the alleged perpetrator. It is, he says, his last resort.
This is a cautionary tale, one that brings into sharp relief the difference between the increasingly well-governed professional game – armed with new technology, a multitude of camera angles, trained citing officers, highly competent disciplinary tribunals and a ruthless determination to present a respectable face to the watching world – and what the Rugby Football Union calls the "community game", which is where 99 per cent of active participants get their weekly fix of thud and blunder. Here, the referee acts alone in attempting to ensure a match stays clean. He cannot even call upon his touch judges for help, for they are virtually always volunteers attached to the participating teams and not encouraged to intervene, no matter what horrors they may witness.
"I love this game," Leonard said. "I played a decent standard down the years and nothing gave me greater pleasure than watching Jason perform in an England or a Lions shirt. Even now, I can't say I've been left with a completely sour feeling; I had too many good times, too much fun, for it all to be ruined by something like this. But it was a sad way to end my career – I never played again after the injury, and I won't do so now. I just worry that there is a tiny minority of people who play for the wrong reasons and do the wrong things. I don't know how they look at themselves in the mirror, how they live with themselves. But they're out there, and it concerns me that away from the really serious level of rugby, there is very little protection and very little reliable advice for those who play for the right reasons but find themselves on the wrong end of a violent act."
Leonard, an open-side flanker of the "not so fast variety" was playing for Clacton in the Essex Leagues against a team from Dagenham when he suffered his trauma. "I can remember it so clearly," he said. "It was early in the game – there had been one scrum, one line-out and one penalty shot at the posts – when I made a tackle and looked up from the deck to see the ball being passed along the line. Then, there was a thud. The referee didn't see it because, quite rightly, he was following the ball, but others knew straight away that something bad had happened. I put my hand to my face and felt the hole. The blood was gushing out so fast, it formed a puddle on the pitch. I was taken straight to hospital, and didn't get out for two days.
"Yes, the player claimed the damage was caused accidentally, but I don't buy it for a second. The hole in my face was caused by a single stud, which indicates contact was made with the heel of the boot rather than the toe-end or middle. To my mind, that tells a tale. What is more, there was not – and never has been – a single word of apology. If this thing was an accident, surely I'd have had a 'Sorry about that, mate'. I've heard nothing."
He felt at the time that the Essex disciplinary committee advised him badly – "I was left in no doubt that it wasn't worth me pursuing the matter" – and communications from Blackett seen by this newspaper bear him out. According to the judge, the Leonard case was seriously mishandled in a number of ways. Blackett has criticised the committee for failing to follow the correct procedures in dealing with a citing; accused an official – now retired – of compromising the committee's independence by seeking to influence Leonard's decision on whether to proceed with his case; and described as "entirely inappropriate" the assumption that a lack of video evidence would automatically result in an acquittal. "The committee should have listened to the witnesses and then decided who they believed," he said. "I am afraid this is very disappointing."
In Leonard's view, it is rather more than disappointing. "Yes, the bloke was punished for playing during a suspension, and the club were docked a couple of points for fielding an unregistered player," he said. "But I can't pretend I'm satisfied with the outcome, which is why I'm taking legal advice. It's not because I now have a star-shaped scar on my face, but because I feel very strongly about the fact that there are people playing rugby who think they can get away with anything.
"Everyone involved in rugby understands it's difficult for local officials, who don't have access to the technology used at the top end of the game. But there is a system in place designed to help those of us lower down the scale – to give good advice to victims of violence and to deal with those who cause it. In my case, that system failed. Basically, I felt, and still feel, that the people in charge didn't want to know. And that raises serious questions for the whole sport."Reuse content