Time for World Rugby to put some order on disciplinary code
The decision by French authorities to lift a 15-week European ban demands attention
England prop Joe Marler is being investigated by World Rugby for racist abuse of Wales prop Samson Lee. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty
Rugby is in the dock again. Some day soon the Joe Marler affair might be settled – an independent hearing before three wise men having been appointed after World Rugby stepped in. Meanwhile there remains little progress with the case of Laurent Sempéré, banned in Europe for eye-gouging but free to play in France.
Twelve months before Joe Marler’s ill-advised utterance, in a Super Rugby contest Waratahs forward Jacques Potgieter was heard to have twice aimed homophobic verbal abuse at Brumbies players. David Pocock, known for his firm and public anti-homophobia views, brought it to the referee’s attention.
Ultimately Sanzar referred it to the Australian rugby authorities who, with reference to their inclusion policy, fined Potgieter 20,000 Australian dollars (10,000 suspended). The South African then visited the Sydney Convicts, a gay rugby club, in an effort to apologise for his actions.
Marler plays in a domestic league that has a diversity programme to promote the game with women, girls and ethnic minorities. Launched in September 2014, Premiership Rugby’s “Rugby4All” programme is government-funded to the tune of £600,000 over two years.
For a professional player, a cash fine paid to the appropriate charity or trust along with some worthy, horizon-broadening social work? The Potgieter solution set a precedent that should have in some way been leaned upon.
The lawyer-friendly disciplinary process so beloved of Northern Hemisphere rugby can read like a shopping list: commit action X prohibited under regulation Y and receive suspension Z. Tempting, therefore, to look to the USA whose all-powerful sports commissioners seem able to look past the niceties of law and due process and impose punishment in what they might term the best interests of the sport. While this can work, the unilateral approach can also run into trouble – one thinks of NFL boss Roger Goodell’s troubled suspension of New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady for his purported involvement in the alleged deflation of game balls.
The thorny issue of due process notwithstanding, there is one big advantage of having a singular arbiter of discipline in a sport: jurisdiction. It might surprise some to note that World Rugby does not have direct disciplinary control over the majority of professional games.
Stade Francais hooker Laurent Sempéré was found guilty of eye-gouging during a Champions Cup match against Leicester in February. He was suspended from the game by European Rugby until May 8th, a total of 15 weeks. His colleague Paul Gabrillagues was handed an eight-week ban for a similar offence in the same game.
Along with Josaia Raisuqe who had been previously suspended for gouging Munster’s CJ Stander, that totalled three players from the same club simultaneously serving suspensions for the same offence.
In a move that runs roughshod over rugby’s principle of a suspension having effect throughout the world game, Sempéré’s ban was lifted by French authorities when it comes to domestic play. The decision appears founded on the question of what constitutes satisfactory evidence under French law, as opposed to rugby law.
Still banned from Champions Cup (Stade face Leicester in a Champions Cup quarter-final on April 10th), Sempéré returned to the Top 14 on March 5th, fully two months early, playing the first hour of Stade’s away win against Pau.
Perhaps it would be better that rugby suspensions were not universal. This column would disagree. If some learned overseers thought that was worth trying out then perhaps one could trial it. But it should be on a collectively agreed basis, not by a rogue state.
France has been here before. After a Heineken Cup match between Perpignan and Ospreys in October 2008 Perpignan’s Marius Tincu was suspended for 18 weeks for making contact with an Osprey’s players eye/eye area. His appeal was dismissed. However, the Comité National Olympique et Sportif Français decreed that he should be able to play domestically. And he did. After an investigation by an IRB panel of enquiry, in mid-2009 it seemed that all had at last found common ground. Alas, it appears not. Seven years on World Rugby needs to find a way to bring the hammer down.
We await the result of the Marler hearing. Perhaps two weeks reduced to one, based on his laudable half-time apology to Samson Lee. Perhaps a few pence for rugby’s poorbox and some social education. Then the game’s custodians might move on to sorting out the business of Laurent Sempéré, lest chaos await.