Bang and blame
Manu Tuilagi's punch was awful, says Stuart Barnes, but the assistant referee's reaction was worse.
Last Updated: 19/05/11 6:39pm
"Both players, 13 Leicester and 14, Northampton threw punches at each other and both connected."
So it was that the assistant referee Robin Goodliffe let down his referee Wayne Barnes, who had not seen the incident; Chris Ashton, who was subjected to an ugly assault from Manu Tuilagi; and the game, with a wanton display of hot-headed thuggishness excused with a yellow card.
Goodliffe stated that he saw the incident quoted above. That simply cannot be true because it never occurred.
What did occur was a one-way battery. It started with a high swinging arm off the ball to check Ashton's support run. The Saint, smashed on his blind side, retaliated - if that is the right word - with a gentle shove to the Samoan's neck. The Leicester centre then bounced to his feet and laid into Ashton with two lefts and a right that probably would have broken Ashton's jaw had it been a few inches lower.
Ashton's 'punches' consisted of no more than two open-palmed attempts to fend off his assailant.
I was sitting 50 metres further away and saw the punch immediately. True, the assistant referee is at touch level so there could feasibly be an element of obstructed view, but the assistant categorically said he witnessed the assault.
Leicester were excellent in the second-half. 15 against 15, they were the better team but apart from Richard Cockerill who was the only person in the stadium who didn't see the gruesome slow-motion lingering replay on the Big Screen, everybody knew a massive injustice had occurred.
The Leicester Director of Rugby's post-match aggression and his perpetual abuse of the referee assessor, Brian Campsell, reflects badly on the club whose team for all bar a few insane seconds played with controlled fury.
Leicester will probably take action against Tuilagi in the way most teams now do, to try to circumvent the citing commissioner but whatever happens he will miss the final unless Twickenham decides to bring the sport into disrepute by backing the assistant referee and his false claim.
In the immediate wake of the game the talk was of how long Tuilagi is banned. That is NOT the point.
There is no defence for what he did, not the tender years, nothing, other than the fact that he is a human being like the rest of us and we all do things we regret afterwards.
Small betrayals and outright lunacy, most of us have our moments. It would be a disgrace if the ban does not impact upon his hopes of representing England at the World Cup.
The match ban should be of sufficient length to make the punishment fitting. If he receives a mere three weeks and is available for the latter stages of the Churchill Cup it will seem as if the RFU is looking after vested interests.
But give the man his punishment and let him be. It is not a six-months offence and when his time has been served away from the game he should be welcomed back as someone who has paid his penance.
Plenty of players have been adjudged guilty of worse and returned redeemed characters. Dylan Hartley's gouge sentence has been and gone and even the manager of England served a few suspensions and few thought the worse of him for it.
What Tuilagi did was awful but these things, much as we wish they didn't, do and will continue to happen on a rugby field unless we make players wear coloured straps and stop when they are touched.
The problem is not the player but the official. The Union has to act publicly. It will not suffice to state that assistants have a hard enough task and public criticism will steer people from the game.
Frankly if one of the leading officials can falter under the pressure exerted at Welford Road then who cares who assists the referee?
Tuilagi must face a punishment and so must Goodliffe, only his should be more severe. There will be violence, that will never be completely eradicated, but the sport has to ensure it is capable of punishing the guilty party accurately. The assistant referee did not.
Out of this mess there could yet be something good. Rugby has improved technology courtesy of the television match official. They are not allowed to interfere with the man in the middle's running of the game but in France, believe me they override the official rules and act as another set of eyes with the benefit of television replays at their disposal.
One of the world's leading referees, Dave Pearson, was the Television Match Official Saturday. Had he spoken to Barnes instead of listening helplessly to the fallacy of Goodliffe's words the injustice of what transpired could have been avoided.
"Did you see anything, Dave?" That is all Barnes had to ask the man in the TV truck.
"I can't answer, Wayne, you know that is against the rules but Robin is talking out of his backside; Ashton is innocent and Tuilagi MUST be sent off. Look at the bloody screen, man."
Instead we followed the rules and justice did not prevail as a direct result. Referees need as much help as possible, especially with such awful non-assistance from the touch line.
Let us use this fiasco to utilise the extra pair of eyes in the truck in a manner that suits the law-abiding British. The French referees don't care for the law as much as they do for accuracy and justice.
I am with the French. On that note it is over to Romain Poites and next weekend's Heineken Cup Final.
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Stuart. It's easy to criticise officials, but remember the assistant referee sees things live and at ground level and Chris Ashton didn't help by not collapsing in a heap as most of us would have!! To be fair this is the first time I've seen Manu lose it! Robert J Purnell
STUART SAYS: Robert, the assistant referee said he saw the incident. Had he said 'I think' or 'not sure' your comments would have some small semblance of justification but Goodliffe stated he saw something that did not happen... I saw it live, not at ground level but 50 metres further away and KNEW Tuilagi had to go. I'd rather defend Tuilagi than Goodliffe over this and the centre's action is indefensible.
Is it ever acceptable?
Stuart. Even as a Leicester fan, the Manu incident is an indefensible red. No question it would have changed the game, despite the Tigers being the better side in the second half. My question is, where do you think the acceptability line lies between what is 'professionalism' and what is an obvious red card assault? At the forefront in my mind is our quarter final with Leinster. Throughout the game, the Irish consistently 'professionally' infringed in the lineout and about the park, and at the time you (rightly, in my opinion) mentioned that Leicester were not doing enough to alert the officials to the situation, perhaps by a quiet word, perhaps (reading in between the lines) by making the point physically. Obviously, Manu was a way over the line yesterday, but it was clear Northampton had arrived with a gameplan to ruffle Leicester, shoving, latish hits, 'letting us know they were there'. Was Manu's response partly frustration at the niggle as well as that single incident? Is there any point in the modern game where a punch (OK, not that one) is acceptable? Phil / Leicester.
STUART SAYS: Phil, the best referees have always understood that the game functions best when there is an element of self policing. In these PC days no official will ever come out and agree but believe me, some of the most-respected referees of recent times all concur. That was my point re the Leinster line out; risk a penalty and throw a handbag to get the attention of the referee. The good ones should understand the difference between that and thuggery. Toby Flood, in my opinion, was right to throw a nothing punch in the direction of Dylan Hartley after another late challenge and notice how Barnes did not reverse the penalty.
But the scale of the Tuilagi punch is off the scale; it was a wild moment without any control or reference to the events going on around. Leicester management and fans who justify it do themselves and their club no credit.....He should be dealt with, banned and then allowed back into the game as happens with all other offenders. My greater concern is with the laxity of officialdom, please read my thoughts above if you have a minute.