By Peter Jackson
Sven Cronk knows how it feels to be poked in the eye as the innocent victim of a gouging offence like no other during 20 years of European rugby. “Horrendous,’’ he said, breaking almost two decades of silence over what happened in the last scrum of Pontypridd’s Heineken Cup win over Colomiers on the last Friday of November 1999. “A hand came across my face and into my right eye. It was pretty gruesome.’’
The hand belonged to one Richard Nones. Despite no video evidence, a disciplinary tribunal returned a guilty verdict against the Frenchman late that same night and gave him the maximum sentence of two years. No gouger had been banned for that long before, nor since.
“We were still engaged in the scrum when it happened,’’ said Cronk, then a 30-year-old prop, now director of rugby at Bargoed after seven years coaching Newport. “I’d fractured a cheekbone some time before and they’d put a titanium mesh around the orbital socket of the same eye. That got blown out.
“There should be no place for it in the game. The officials that night were all Scottish and the one touch judge (Bertie Craig) was in no doubt about what he’d seen.
“My eye and face were marked quite badly. He (Nones) came on as a replacement all fired up.There was a lot of chat in the scrum and a couple of punches came through from the second row.
“The sentence was the longest given to one player at the time and still is. Was it too severe? They disputed it but I know what happened. I had a hand in my face and a finger in my eye which was bloodshot.
“There ought to be no place for that in the game. I was a judo player for Wales so I could look after myself but gouging has always been out of bounds. I don’t think there are many in the game who do it deliberately.
“There was the Francois Louw case last weekend. Perhaps he didn’t know where his opponent’s face was. It’s a fine line. The only person who really knows is the guy who’s doing it. With Nones, the punishment had to have a deterrent effect.’’
Judging by a spate of gouging offences, that effect seems to have worn off years ago. For all the promises of zero tolerance from the authorities, only one ban has come remotely close to Nones’ and that was almost eight years ago.
David Attoub (title picture), the Stade Francais prop, got 70 weeks for gouging Stephen Ferris against Ulster at Ravenhill in what the RFU’s then disciplinary officer, Jeff Blackett, described as “the worst act of contact with the eyes I have seen”.
Gauging the degree of intent behind other gouging cases has produced some bewildering verdicts. Troy Flavell’s is the most bewildering of all. Banned for twelve months, the former All Black second row succeeded in reducing that on appeal to a mere three weeks.
Nones’ appeal failed to reduce his ban by a single day. With each subsequent verdict, he could be forgiven for bursting into simultaneous laughter and tears. He has had reason for doing one or both since Schalk Burger escaped with eight weeks after being accused of gouging during the Springbok-Lions series in 2009.
That caused such a stink that the smell had World Rugby holding its collective nose at their headquarters in Dublin. It happened the day after they promised to take action to eradicate the ‘most heinous’ of on-field crimes.
Last season Fijian wing Josaia Raisuqe got 15 weeks and his English counterpart Chris Ashton ten. The most recent suspensions for similar types of offence have shown a marked drop in sentences.
Disbelief at the relative lenience of Kyle Sinckler’s seven weeks for ‘making contact with the eye area’ had barely subsided than it broke out anew over Louw’s escape with three weeks after being found guilty of a similar offence during Bath’s win over Treviso.
A Berlin Wall occasion takes place in Cardiff next Friday evening. More than 60 years after leaving Union for League during the long cold war between the codes, Billy Boston will be welcomed home at a dinner in his honour.
A nice change after a lifetime of being shunned by the Union establishment, it has been made possible by the Welsh Charitables RFC under the dynamic direction of David Power. His club have already gone a long way to dismantling the wall which had been there in a metaphorical sense well before the Kremlin built their own across Berlin.
A host of big names, among them Clive Rowlands, JPR Williams, Keith Jarrett, David Watkins, Steve Fenwick and Mills himself, will pay tribute to the superstar from Tiger Bay, now in his 84th year.
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