Player's jailing shows it is one law for amateurs, another for the pros
By Bath Chronicle | Thursday, March 08, 2012, 11:00
You don't have to be Hercule Poirot to conclude that there appears to be one law for professional rugby and another for the amateur game when it comes to the punishments handed down for on-pitch violence.
The jailing of Keynsham number eight Jack Weston for six months is a case that brings into sharp relief what, to my mind, is a disgusting disparity between the professional and amateur games in this country.
Weston was put behind bars for throwing two punches at an opponent during a 'hotly contested' derby with Oldfield Old Boys.
Back in May, a rather better known player by the name of Manu Tuilagi threw three punches at an opponent in another hotly contested derby, this time in the East Midlands, between Leicester and Northampton.
Weston is now sitting in a prison cell. Tuilagi? Well, less than a month after letting rip with his barrage of punches in front of the TV cameras, he was named the Premiership's Young Player of the Season. He then went on to play for England in the World Cup.
The only slap on the wrist for Tuilagi was a nominal five-week ban – I say nominal because the regular league season was over.
He was also ordered to pay £500 in costs – pretty small change for an international star.
In evidence given against Weston – who pleaded guilty to GBH – his victim, Oldfield's Ben Staunton, said the impact of the second punch he had received had been "ten out of ten".
Those who have seen footage of Tuilagi's final effort on Chris Ashton could quite reasonably give it the same rating.
Ashton needed treatment to his cut and bruised face; Staunton's jaw was broken.
The RFU's disciplinary officer, Judge Jeff Blackett, so often a voice of reason, made the following observation after the hearing into Tuilagi's behaviour. It was an observation that raised eyebrows at the time but, in the context of Weston's case, it raises as many questions as it does eyebrows.
"This sort of incident is very damaging to the image of the game and there is no place for this type of offending on the rugby pitch," wrote Blackett.
"Had it occurred in the high street an offender would have been prosecuted in the criminal courts. Nevertheless we are confident that Manu Tuilagi will learn a valuable lesson from this."
Had it occurred in the high street.... Is the inference from this that professional players enjoy immunity from prosecution for their on-field violence? Because if that is the case, then it is certainly not the case for the amateur game, as Weston's case has shown.
Jack Weston's unacceptable behaviour did not occur on the high street, it occurred on the rugby pitch – and he had the book thrown at him.
Manu Tuilagi's unacceptable behaviour also occurred on the rugby pitch – in front of a massive TV audience – and the CPS sat on its hands.
Almost laughably in the context of Blackett's remarks, the judge in Weston's case, Judge Carol Hagen, jailed him because of the bad example he had set.
"It is important everyone realises the consequences of the behaviour you engaged in on that November afternoon," she told him before sending him down.
If lessons about consequences are to be learned, then Judge Hagen's logic would lead us to the conclusion that Tuilagi should have been jailed too. After all, he was playing in a match watched by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people on television. He is the one idolised by kids.
I don't condone Jack Weston's actions, not one bit – thuggery in all its guises does not belong in the game – but the inconsistency across the different levels of the game stinks.
Once he is out of prison, Weston will face a Somerset RFU disciplinary hearing. That, surely, will be an ideal occasion for everyone in rugby to think long and hard about this frankly appalling disparity.