Does the EPCR Disciplinary Panel process have player welfare at the forefront?

Disciplinary panel decisions cast cloud over EPCR and player welfare?

This was the season where rugby union was supposed to look out for player’s safety and welfare. Directives aplenty were issued at the start of the season with regards to tackling, the use of feet in the ruck but EPCR tournament continues to be scourged by that old chestnut in the dirty tactic rule book: gouging.

Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on what was a damning disciplinary panel session this week as Castres scrum-half Rory Kockott played the dice, pleaded guilty to making contact to the eye area of Chris Cloete to see if the panel blinked. They did and the repercussions of the verdict should be far, far reaching.

The Castres / Munster fixtures in Pool 2 have been horrendous viewing. Horrendous in that the Castres side even in the Thomond Park fixture refused to entertain the thought of playing any expansive rugby; conservationism would be a disgrace to the word as Castres were preoccupied in disrupting, blatant offside positioning and killing ruck ball. JP Doyle and officiating crew failing to stamp their authority on this contest. The players during the third quarter went to war to settle scores. The bitterness that ensued was brimming for the return leg.

Last weekend in Castres was one for the EPCR video nasty category. The game was feisty and cynical from the first hit. Wayne Barnes and officiating crew apparently unaware of the animosity between both teams prior to the kick off and with a hapless TMO in the booth, all hell broke loose.

Barnes, officiating crew and the TMO would be central characters in the disciplinary hearing yesterday as Rory Kockott and Marc-Antoine Rallier were hauled before the disciplinary panel to answer charges of eye gouging and dangerous tackling respectively.

The Castres representative legal advise was on point for Kockott. Plead early and look for the panel to blink. The tactic worked a treat. Kockott got away with a three week ban (was four weeks but given the player was very polite and a good boy at the hearing was reduced it by one week).

Rallier likewise must have been confident of his fate and an one week ban could be appealed by the club. Castres have nothing to lose on the Rallier case, a one week is facile.

What the disciplinary hearing brought up was the performance of the officiating crew on duty in Castres. The panel stating that both Kockott and Rallier incidents were red card offenses. The role of the referee, touch judges and TMO by default are called into question. One red card missed is bad enough but two is a systematic officiating failure. The mere admission of this has massive repercussions for the tournament organizers.

Munster Rugby on another day would have played against fourteen Castres players for sixty minutes and thirteen Castres players for approximately twelve minutes. The probability of tries scored by Munster Rugby would have exponentially increased and a pool win to seize control of Pool 2 and a chance of a home quarter final potentially may have ensued.

The result instead saw Castres win by a solitary point. Munster Rugby realistically having to win their last two games of the pool to even qualify for the last eight of the competition. A home quarter final looks remote; potentially massive loss of revenue for the club and Limerick area. CEO’s of other professional rugby clubs would be incensed by this chain of events; it will only take one owner to launch litigation and this competition will be in precarious ground.

What I also found astonishing about the Kockott verdict was that past behavior was not taken into account. It looks like the verdict yesterday was based on the player having a clean record which has been a mixed bag. Look to the start of the season, Chris Ashton was leveled with a seven week ban in an incident involving Rory Kockott.

The accusation from Ashton in his defense in this case was interesting; an alleged eye gouging incident from Kockott who has had a chequered history in South Africa (red card 2009), anyone recall that tip tackle against Racing 92 in 2017 which was only a yellow card and guess who was the match official that day, you guessed it Wayne Barnes. Obviously, there was the red card brandished for the incident with Ashton back in August. Player disciplinary record had to come into the equation but the panel chose to ignore in this case.

Castres’s Top 14 league win was applauded by many last season. The club is managed well financially and the players in the squad are hard working and a cohesive unit but this season, their on pitch behavior has been a plight on the game and any goodwill towards them has left the building.

Sale Sharks early this season warned of Castres and their cynical approach to the game. EPCR were well warned. The disciplinary panel procedure is not fit for purpose; will it require a player to be permanently blinded by a cowardly eye gouge to take the required action? Will it require a player heaven forbid to be paralyzed by a dangerous tip tackle to take the action. It appears that this will be the case unfortunately. Player Welfare is an after thought right now from the EPRC disciplinary panel in order to keep the organization on the good side of the established rugby club fraternity.

The EPCR disciplinary panel is bereft of consistent rulings. The vague language on press releases immediately after these meetings does little for the rugby supporter. I fear that a traumatic rugby incident is not far off and when it does happen, the EPCR will be cowering for cover. A dark day for rugby union in the Northern Hemisphere.

Let the cyncial and dark arts of the game be promoted; that is what the verdict yesterday signals. Castres will continue to do what they do, best of luck to Gloucester Rugby heading to France in January. EPCR disciplinary procedures are in utter crisis; yesterday’s events prove as much.