Scottish Rugby has delivered what are believed to be the heaviest bans in the history of the game there when it handed out 347 weeks of suspensions to 14 players, a coach and an official at a Fife club over a sickening initiation ceremony which is understood to have left one player with internal injuries.
The bans - involved the second tier side Howe of Fife RFC - are among the toughest ever imposed anywhere in the sport, and come as the authorities throughout the UK have voiced concern so-called initiation ceremonies are leading to a massive drop-off in participation in rugby.
Charges of sexual assault were initially brought over the Howe of Fife incident, which occurred on board the team bus in September last year, when the Cupar club’s first team were hammered 71-20 at Jed-Forest.
The SRU has refused to comment on reports that the incident involved a bottle being inserted into the victim's anus.
Two officials each received bans of 54 weeks “from any involvement in rugby coaching, officiating or administration” for “failing to exercise reasonable and proper control over the players under their supervision”.
Garry Horne, the club’s former head coach and father of Scotland international Peter, was banned for a year, as was former president Murdo Fraser.
Both men resigned in June after Scottish Rugby announced that it had launched a formal investigation into allegations of misconduct.
The longest bans were handed down to two Howe players, who each received a ban of 84 weeks. Twenty-year-old Angus Guthrie and 22-year-old Robert Douglas are effectively barred from rugby for two seasons, while teammate Stephen Martin received an eight-week ban and eleven further Howe first-team players received six-week bans.
It is understood that the lesser bans are not for actively taking part in the incident, but for failing to stop it.
Following the incident, two Cupar players were subsequently arrested and charged with sexual assault.
Although criminal proceedings were brought, the case was settled through an “alternative to prosecution (direct measure)” - believed to involve a fine being paid - which ensured it never reached court.
Given that the majority of the Howe of Fife first team have been suspended, Scottish Rugby have staggered the suspensions.
However, every office bearer, trustee, director and player at the club who is over the age of 18 will be required to attend a series of workshops to improve the club’s culture.
“The behaviour of those involved in this incident, including several individuals in positions of authority at the club, was completely unacceptable,” said Scottish Rugby’s chief executive Mark Dodson.
“Scottish Rugby has been proactive to ensure a full, independent disciplinary process was conducted and that measures are put in place to deliver a change of culture at the club. “The actions of those involved have absolutely no place in our sport. Significant sanctions have been applied in this matter and Scottish Rugby will not hesitate to take action against any club, official or player behaving in a similarly unacceptable manner.”
In most regards, Howe, who are currently in National League Division 2 after being relegated last season, have been an exemplary community club.
As well as turning out several internationals, ranging from 1960s Scotland and Lions prop Dave Rollo to current Scotland internationals and Glasgow Warriors players Peter Horne and Chris Fusaro, Howe of Fife’s feeder school, Bell Baxter, remains the only state school ever to have won the Scottish Schools Cup.
The club has also raised £1.5m to build a new clubhouse, has a thriving junior section and has pioneered player safety protocols around concussion.
However, the incident is reminiscent of another ugly episode in Scottish rugby, which occurred in 2001 when Kelso second-row forward Steven Rowley ended up in hospital after being stripped and assaulted with a pool cue at his own stag party, held at the club’s Poynder Park clubhouse. After Rowley was left with internal injuries that required hospitalisation, the club captain resigned and was suspended for the remainder of the season by the club, while four further players received four-week bans.
Fifteen years later, the idea that a similar incident would be dealt with by the club rather than by the police and the game’s governing body is unconscionable. Instead, it has led to proceedings and to draconian bans by Scottish Rugby.
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