The term, ‘zero tolerance’ suggests clarity and a lack of ambiguity. In rugby union, following a spate of eye gouging incidents, the term was applied to a renewed campaign by the IRB and RFU to drive out any attempt to make contact with the eyes.
Deterrence was to lie at the heart of this campaign — any player who put their hands and fingers close to the eyes of opponents would be banned for a minimum period of 12 weeks. This specific sanction would be applied to an act which would be deemed reckless rather than intentional, with ever increasing penalties for the severity of the offence.
Thus, the case of Mark Cueto is a strange one, which could give the conspiracy theorists plenty of fuel for the fire, not to mention raise eyebrows in France where they believe that their players are persecuted in such instances by having the book thrown at them.
Certain elements of the incident make the decision of a nine week ban seem like an unlikely and illogical outcome.
Firstly, Cueto pleaded guilty to the charge of making contact with the eye or eye area. I repeat, he pleaded guilty. Therefore, one would assume that at the very least the minimum sanction of 12 weeks would be invoked.
Secondly, the three-man RFU disciplinary panel described the case as a mid-range offence, which would normally carry an 18 week ban.
By using such a description, one would infer that there was intent rather than just a reckless act. Indeed, all you have to do is watch the footage and there can be no doubt that Cueto knew what he was doing.
Put these two facts together — an admission of guilt and a mid-range offence — and you have a serious punishment on the cards.
Now, throw that glorious phrase ‘compelling mitigation’ into the mix and you suddenly have a 50 per cent reduction in the sentence, a nine week ban, which will allow the winger to be available for England’s World Cup warm up games. Why wouldn’t you smell a whiff of conspiracy?
Facing a disciplinary panel, who wouldn’t show remorse? Who doesn’t get positive character references? And most have a decent track record.
The biggest mitigant seems to have been the victim’s statement. Christian Day, the Northampton Saints lock and former flatmate of Cueto’s, stated that his memory was of a push to a face.
He went further, however, by saying ‘If a finger inadvertently entered my eye then it was, in my opinion, accidental and was certainly not my lasting memory of the event.’
Christian, the finger either went in or it didn’t, and anyway it doesn’t really matter — the intent was there to make contact with that part of the body.
That is the fact of the matter which would have received a fairer punishment had the English system — Martin Johnson, Rob Andrew and Sale owner Brian Kennedy — not come out in force and put pressure on the decision-makers.
The sanction is akin to a light slap on the wrist. Sale are safe from relegation and it will suit both player and national coach that Cueto can now snap into pre-World Cup mode in terms of both rest and pre-season training and come back just in time.
Is it any wonder that you sense more than a hint of home union favouritism?
It is high time that there is an independent IRB panel to adjudicate, cross-union and cross- competition on disciplinary matters, rather than a home union deciding on its own players.
The biggest insult to the system was Schalk Burger’s eight week ban for the gouging of Luke Fitzgerald on the last Lions tour to South Africa. Surely, that is the only way to ensure consistency and fairness across the board.
For me and many others, the RFU is in the dock as the ‘system’ appears to have been manipulated for its own purposes. Usually in these situations, we see the player appeal against his punishment.
Somehow, I cannot see the England winger taking that option. He will take it on the chin (rather than in the eye) and keep his head down (which is what he should have done in the first place). Mark Cueto knows how lucky he has been.