No room for errors when in the ERC dock


DIARY:An insight into the machinations of an ERC disciplinary hearing, where the proceedings have a court-case feel to them

NEWSPAPERS CARRY pictures of the pro rugby player walking down a Dublin street in civvies, before entering a grey building. The television crews are also there and this walk is also carried on the main evening news. A few hours later he comes back out with either a) a look of relief, b) eyes firmly to the ground, or c) utter confusion etched across his face.

This week it was Paul O’Connell. Of course, Paul held his head up high.

But what really happens in an ERC disciplinary hearing?

I was called up to the hot seat three years ago and while the process has improved in the interim I do have an insight into the machinations of rugby’s disciplinary systems.

I should mention immediately I was cited for stamping after the match against Treviso in January 2008, but my good name was subsequently cleared and I was free to play a few days later.

It is not a story of Gerry Conlon proportions but I did feel like a free man. Seriously though, I was also conscious of the day’s training I had just missed and the cost of the whole process. Taking in flights to Dublin, taxis to and from the airport, food and legal fees, the club was shelling out up to €4,000 to defend me, which naturally increases if there is an appeal.

It can get far worse. I believe the Bloodgate scandal cost Harlequins in the region of €250,000 while Toulouse’s expenses in defending Trev Brennan a few years back went into the tens of thousands.

In fairness to the ERC, they have worked hard to reduce these costs. They hold most of their cases at their Dublin head offices and at a suitable time in the afternoon so travelling players and their defence team do not need to arrive until the morning of a hearing.

Two other London Irish players were also cited from that Treviso game, so Declan Danaher and Dan Murphy joined me in the dock. Declan loosely falls into the Paul Hill category, to my Conlon, but we will get to his ingenious defence a little later.

The proceedings do have a court-case feel to them. There were three judges present for my hearing (it is now just one with the independent judicial officer, HHJ Jeff Blackett from England, hearing the O’Connell case but the citing commissioner is also present) with the ERC team headed by Roger O’Connor.

It is a professional sport so there can be no margin for error on or off the field. And this is proof.

For our triple whammy we brought two legal experts, our team manager and a technical analyst for the inevitable use of slow-motion video evidence. This was our scrum coach Neal Hatley as he speaks well and has experience in these matters.

Trust me, you don’t want to land into a hearing unprepared because you will be cross-examined by a highly-respected barrister or solicitor. I remember being prepped for three or four hours on how to answer possible questions before my hearing. It made a difference.

Again, just like court, the prosecution lays out their case before the defence submits theirs (the former Ireland international Donal Spring has represented many Irish players, including O’Connell last week).

The sanction category for an offence is broken down as low-, mid- or high-end range, depending on the incident. A suspension will depend on aggravating or mitigating circumstances. In aggravating circumstances the accused may have a poor disciplinary record or someone may have been badly injured, or a plea of not guilty is registered.

Mitigating circumstances would be remorse, apologising to the player and his club in advance of the hearing, and taking his previous good record into consideration. Pleading guilty also tends to help when the length of a ban is being decided.

A notable difference from actual court cases is the judicial officer is not bound by precedent. They can judge each case on its individual merits.

I have mentioned the cost factor of these hearings but the real loss is to the squad. Munster losing O’Connell potentially for another four-week stretch could be incalculably damaging to their season.

In O’Connell’s case, a red card means he automatically had a case to answer and Munster challenged the validity of the sending off anyway.

Usually though, everything rests on the independent citing commissioner’s shoulders (in England these include Budge Pountney, ironically enough, and Wade Dooley).

This system is a huge improvement on the old tit-for-tat policy in the early days of professional rugby. This made it incumbent on clubs to cite opposing players. It tended to get messy and created plenty of animosity.

After a game the citing commissioner goes down to the dressingroom to speak with the coaches. In our case on Saturday he would ask London Irish coach Toby Booth and Toulon’s Philippe Saint Andre if they want anything to be looked at more closely. They also get to plead their case a little but the commissioner will not be swayed.

Throughout the 80 minutes he would have been listing incidents worth looking at again and noting their time. After speaking with both coaches he would head over to the Sky Sports production booth and watch his perceived flash points from all eight camera angles. Sky then give him a real-time DVD of the game to watch on the plane home.

He has 72 hours from full-time to bring an incident to Roger O’Connor’s attention. That sets the disciplinary wheels in motion.

We felt we made a valid point at a hearing after George Stowers was red-carded against Bath. George was sent off for a high tackle and the game went completely against us when reduced to 14 men. That, we argued, was punishment enough. The same can be said of Sailosi Tagicakibau’s dismissal on Saturday in Toulon.

Anyway, back in 2008 I got off and so did Dan Murphy, for tripping, so it was up to Declan to secure the hat-trick for London Irish. Declan pleaded guilty for stamping but he is, God bless him, an excitable chap so when the disciplinary panel asked him to explain what exactly happened, he replied: “Ah, he was on the ball, on our side so . . . I just gave him a bit of shoe pie.”

You have to think about what you are saying in these hearings. It is serious stuff. Allegedly one of the judges present was unable to suppress a laugh but they had little choice but to give Declan three weeks for serving up such a delectable dish.

Merry Christmas folks and best of luck in 2011.