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Quinlan's liberation highlights need for clarity in judgments

Munster should never have beaten Northampton on Friday night. They were a bit lucky that the visitors to Thomond Park were conscious of their losing bonus point and the need to protect it, rather than go wild for the win. Even so, Munster were given a right going over.

Having won the first scrummage against the head, they were rearranged thereafter in that department by the positively leering Euan Murray, Scotland's tight-head prop.

Paul O'Connell was, for once, bettered at the lineout, by Juandre Kruger. Tomás O'Leary had a torrid time behind the forwards, fumbling on the floor, hesitant with his kicks.

Munster were saved by a player who revelled in the murky adversity up front. Alan Quinlan played a virtuoso role in the back row, so extravagant that it was pure panto.

He earned a penalty against Chris Ashton when the winger, having been ushered over the touchline, refused to surrender the ball. Quinlan's requests to have it returned were so hammed up that it earned one of the biggest cheers ever for an incident off the field of play.

Quinlan was everywhere. Or rather, wherever his 35-year-old legs carried him, the ball soon followed. It was a clairvoyant performance by one of the grand nuisances of the game and completed the restoration of his reputation after the eye-gouging incident against Leinster in last year's Heineken Cup semi-final.

As a punishment for feeling his way a bit too close for comfort around the eyes of Leo Cullen, Quinlan missed the Lions tour to South Africa, which was probably as bad as any sanction could be. The flanker had been selected to niggle the South Africans to distraction, a wonderful bonus in the twilight of his career. And suddenly it was gone.

On the other hand, 12 weeks were deemed to be paltry for the crime that was already leaping up the charts of nefarious popularity. Before the summer was out there would be even more lenient sentences -- eight weeks -- slapped on Schalk Burger, for gouging Luke Fitzgerald in the second Lions Test in Pretoria, and Sergio Parisse for gouging Isaac Ross in the New Zealand-Italy Test.

Now, it seems, enough is enough. No more holidays. Rugby is getting tough on gouging, with Julien Dupuy sentenced to 24 weeks for what he did to Stephen Ferris in the third round of the Heineken Cup between Ulster and Stade Francais, reduced on appeal to 23; David Attoub -- wait for it --got 70 weeks, for assaulting the same player. Ferris must have wondered what he'd done to deserve this double-socketry.

There is a slight problem here, in that both French players may point to the earlier sentences and ask how what they've done is deemed so much worse. The judge of the European Rugby Cup disciplinary panel, Jeff Blackett, offered a response, claiming that Attoub's was one of the worst cases of gouging he'd seen.

But how much had the good judge seen? Photographic evidence was produced but a snap may represent, what, 1/25th of a second. Attoub said he made contact but it was over in a flash.

Blackett said rugby needed to act before somebody was seriously injured, but it would be good for his argument if he could actually point to the case of Player X, blinded in an eye after a gouging incident on a rugby field. We have raged for some time now about the gravity of gouging, but it appears it is worse for the image of the game than it is for the eyesight of the victim.

Please don't think I'm soft on gouging. I consider it to be vile, if not downright kinky. But it's not leaving a trail of widows and orphans.

And rugby has to be careful about taking this quantum leap from the lenient into the draconian. Their footing is not entirely sure. It is still, for example, in the law book that a player entering a ruck or maul must be bound to one of his team-mates.

And yet the clear-out has been universally coached for years. And when Bakkies Botha came flying in and took out Adam Jones, as in that same second Test in Pretoria, and in so doing caused genuine, career-threatening damage, the Springboks responded with disbelief, expressed by their forwards coach Gary Gold, that good play should not be penalised.

The Springbok players responded even more militantly, putting their 'Justice for Bakkies' armbands on for the next Test. And yet there it is in simple black and white, that the clear-out by the solo human missile contravenes rugby law.

"I know, I know," said the refereeing supremo at the International Rugby Board, Paddy O'Brien. "We're going to have to take another look at that one."

In the meantime, two Stade Francais players are paying a heavy price for an outburst of exemplary justice. Not that it seems it will prevent them from turning out in the French Top 14. French national law does not turn in the same way as Anglo-Saxon rugby law and for all that the game wants to obliterate gouging, do not be surprised to see Dupuy and Attoub back in domestic action soon enough, roundly cheered as victims of heavy-handed justice administered by enemies of the French people.


Sunday Independent