Calum Clark has been banned for 32 weeks for deliberately hyper-extending the elbow of Leicester hooker Rob Hawkins. The Northampton flanker, who was selected in Stuart Lancaster’s EPS for the 6 Nations but not included in a match squad, will not play again until 2nd November 2012.
The ban is an interesting one, not least because the RFU has published a full report from the hearing. This offers a rare and fascinating chance to see inside rugby’s disciplinary process. For the purist, it also offers the opportunity to compare football’s (deeply flawed) discipline procedures with those of rugby, as the FA’s report on Luis Suarez’s investigation for racist abuse is still in the public domain. I, however, am going to focus on points of interest from Clark’s report alone.
Clark pleaded guilty to the offence with which he was charged, and the video evidence was also damning. For many, this should have carried at least a 12 month suspension, given the horrific injury which Hawkins suffered and the ugly image that the incident presented.
The 22-year old’s mitigation, however, was that he did not mean to hurt or injure the player, as he was only trying to manoeuvre Hawkins away from the ball and did not realise that he was trapped, which led to his elbow giving way. This defence was accepted by Judge Jeff Blackett, the RFU’s chief disciplinary officer, and was a key factor in reducing the ban from a potential 5 year duration to 64 weeks (which was in turn reduced by the maximum allowance of 50% for mitigating factors).
This throws the case into an area of ambiguity and debate. On the one hand, a lack of intent on Clark’s part does not mitigate the injury to Hawkins, who may suffer long term damage. The IRB, for one, have made it clear that lack of intent is only scant excuse for dangerous play, by telling referees to disregard it in the case of dangerous tackles.
This also does little to save the image of the game, the concern which almost certainly led the RFU to publish of the report. While Richard Cockerill has accepted the punishment as sufficient, even offering a few uncharacteristic words of conciliation, it is ammunition for those who see rugby’s licensed aggression as unacceptable. Few other sports would offer the chance for such a cringe-worthy injury, and parents and young children will not view the incident well.
Looking at it from the other direction, however, one can feel a touch sorry for Clark. Assuming he is being truthful, which his clean record and reputation would suggest, he has made a terrible mistake which has set his career back by eight months and significantly damaged his professional reputation. This is weighty punishment for an accidental consequence. Coming from this angle, Northampton Saints issued a strongly-worded and eloquent statement of their sense of grievance:
“The disciplinary panel found that Calum Clark had not intended to injure Rob Hawkins in the course of moving his arm. Accordingly the unfortunate injury suffered by Rob Hawkins was unintentional.
“In the light of that finding of the disciplinary panel, Northampton Saints is bound to express concern and disappointment at the imposition of such a long suspension, even after significant mitigation in recognition of what was accepted to be Calum Clark’s genuine remorse.”
Further adding to Clark’s case is the searing honesty which is documented in the report. It is worth quoting directly: “The Player said that after the game and since he has been devastated for lots of reasons, primarily for Rob Hawkins himself. He said that he would not wish an injury such as this on anybody…. Last weekend he went to coach local children and he was afraid that their parents would not want someone perceived as a violent player to coach them.”
There is, of course, no simple conclusion to such a case. It is the nature of an aggressive contact sport that mistakes will occur and that serious injuries will happen. It is also paramount for the game to protect its image. For what it’s worth, it seems to me that Blackett has made exactly the right call here – a serious ban, but not in the order of a 5 year suspension. Indeed, perhaps the best conclusion to draw is that it is to rugby’s eternal credit that it has a disciplinary system which is transparent but at the same time sufficiently complex to deal with such difficult cases. The use of a strong evidence base, drawing on everything from medical testimony to character references; the ability to take genuine mitigating factors into account; and a strong disciplinary staff, headed by a respected legal figure, are all crucial in ensuring that rugby, more often than not, gets it right.
In the meantime, the published report is well worth reading, and offers a great insight into a little-highlighted area of the game.