Saturday 24 February 2018

Lack of follow-up on gouging allegation gives wrong message

If Peter O'Mahony believes he was the victim of a gouging attempt, then he was wrong not to pursue his claims, says Brendan Fanning

In the 64th minute of the Ireland versus Argentina Test match at Lansdowne Road last weekend, play was disrupted by the sort of falling-out which is common enough at most levels of the game. A tackle develops into something else – next thing you know half a dozen or more players are involved, mostly grabbing each other by the collar and swearing all sorts.

In this instance, as the parties were trying to disengage on their own terms, the temperature suddenly shot up when an Argentine player grabbed at the face of an opponent.

What seemed certain to end in a citing for Agustin Creevy, the Argentinian replacement hooker who scraped his hand across Peter O'Mahony's face, ended instead in a handshake at the post-match dinner. Given O'Mahony's anger at the time, and soon after the game, this was a bizarre conclusion.

Saturday's incident was the third time there was either a proven or alleged gouging issue between Ireland and Argentina. In their 2003 World Cup meeting in Adelaide, Puma props Roberto

Grau and Mauricio Reggiardo were banned for nine and six weeks respectively for gouging Keith Wood and Reggie Corrigan. The following year the teams met again, in Lansdowne Road, and Ireland maintained six of their players were gouged that day, including Simon Easterby who needed stitches inside his mouth. No citings were made.

Why no action was taken after this latest episode has implications for the way the IRB runs its disciplinary procedures.

Soon after the final whistle last Saturday, the French citing commissioner Yann Le Dore approached Ireland manager Mick Kearney to ask if he had any issues which he thought needed attention. This is standard procedure. Kearney told him they were unhappy with what had happened to O'Mahony, and Le Dore said he was already aware something needed to be examined.

The commissioner busied himself between the referee and the two camps, talking to the two players, and managers. Based on those conversations, and the various angles he had on the video replay, he decided that no citing was warranted, and reported as much to the IRB.

Considering O'Mahony's reaction at the boiling point of the moment, this needs explaining. One second he is grappling with Creevy, grabbing him by the scruff of the neck, and the next he is recoiling and shouting about his eyes – a shout picked up on the ref link – as the Puma draws his hand across his face.

Le Dore says the key elements in the case were the extra angle afforded him for his review, which the public would not have seen, and Peter O'Mahony's account.

"It's like the 100m," he told us last week. "When you watch from the front you cannot tell who is the winner, but when you watch from the side it is possible."

He said that what appeared to be clear contact from one angle was something else from another. However, the Sunday Independent has seen the angles on which Le Dore based part of his decision, and how he arrived at that point is stupefying.

Moreover, he says O'Mahony conceded there was no contact. "At the beginning when I ask him why, he said 'My eyes, my eyes,' he said, 'Because I was afraid, but I have no contact with my eyes or my face. I never receive some contact from his finger or his hand'. Peter O'Mahony answer every time that – at the beginning and at the end."

It is possible that something is being lost in translation, for the evidence shows Creevy's hand all over O'Mahony's face. The player however will not comment on the incident. Significantly, Le Dore added: "I asked him did he think there was intent and he said, 'Yes, there was intent'."

It's not clear why the commissioner didn't have enough on the video evidence alone, or why he was asking the player to comment on the degree of intent or otherwise. That is something that should be examined at any subsequent hearing. Clearly, however, O'Mahony felt threatened by what happened, and notwithstanding Le Dore's account of the alternate angles, it is hard to understand how 'non-contact' could have drawn such a reaction from a player who is extremely abrasive and not given to complaint.

There was other activity going on around the corridor outside the changing rooms that day. At one point former Leinster player Felipe Contepomi, Puma coach Santiago Phelan, Agustin Creevy, and another Argentine official could be seen in animated conversation with Ireland manager Mick Kearney.

Players are mostly as unenthusiastic about testifying as victims as they are about defending themselves when accused. Part of the reason is because sometimes it feels like the same thing. Not only do they see the whole process as time-consuming and distracting, when typically there is a game to prepare for, but they also run the risk of being grilled by a defence counsel who makes them feel like they are in the dock rather than on the witness stand.

Rugby disciplinary hearings are frequently adversarial, as the accused has every right to have his counsel challenge the account of the accuser. Perhaps when O'Mahony weighed up the evidence he reckoned that it was not worth the hassle. Wrong call.

The problem here is twofold: it's not his decision alone to make – the point of having an independent process is for a third party to make the running – and there is a flaw with a system that is viewed by players as a journey to be avoided, even when it is in their own interests to get on board.

Peter O'Mahony believed Agustin Creevy had malicious intent, but let the case drop. In so doing you would have to question the advice he received in arriving at this point. He has spared himself the grief of going through a hearing last week, and he avoided a potential grilling by Creevy's counsel. Creevy, as the commissioner found, incredibly, had no case to answer.

Sunday Indo Sport

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