By Nick Cain
KYLE Sinckler can consider himself fortunate to get off with a seven-week ban after making contact with Northampton lock Michael Paterson’s eyes last weekend. The leniency also highlights – again – the lack of consistency in the disciplinary sentencing process.
Last season Chris Ashton was banned for ten weeks for a neck/face roll on Luke Marshall in Saracens’ European Cup tie with Ulster which was more accidental than Sinckler’s latest misdemeanour. Yet, because it was three weeks longer, it effectively ended Ashton’s England career. His hopes of an England recall after being reinstated in the Red Rose squad were dashed because the ban covered the entire 2017 Six Nations.
There was a degree of sympathy for Ashton because, although he went too high, there were no signs of deliberate intent to injure, whereas Sinckler had no qualms about wrenching Paterson’s head-guard off with as much force as it took.
Irrespective of the strong character references given to the Harlequins tight-head by the club’s rugby director, John Kingston, and the former Quins winger, Ugo Monye, Sinckler’s lengthening list of disciplinary problems will be a growing concern.
Although Kingston said that the idea his prop was “some kind of thug” was totally inaccurate, both his club and country will be worried about his hair-trigger temper. Any more incidents and his actions will be perceived not so much as youthful over-reaction as loose cannon.
The warnings to Sinckler from England coach Eddie Jones to improve his discipline appear to have fallen on deaf ears so far. The upshot is that the ban handed down this week by an RFU disciplinary panel following the Paterson citing will rule the 24-year-old England and Lions tight-head out of most of the Autumn series, missing the games against Argentina and Australia. He will also be unavailable for his club’s crucial early European Cup pool matches, as well as Premiership action.
There have been attempts to differentiate Sinckler’s contact with Paterson’s head from a deliberate attempt to gouge, calling it recklessness rather than premeditated malice aimed at inflicting injury to the eyes.
This definition is problematic because it is difficult to be sure where reckless endangerment ends, and gouging begins.
This incident, which involves Sinckler trying to rip Paterson’s head-guard off before clamping a hand across his eyes, illustrates the difficulties. The reality is that if you wilfully grapple with an opponent’s head – especially if you get hands and fingers to their face – there is an inherent danger that you will injure their eyes.
In such circumstances a finger could find its way into a fellow player’s eye socket as easily as if it was a deliberate gouge. This means that in terms of injuries caused, reckless endangerment could be as damaging to an opponent as a premeditated gouge.
The reality is that the increasing volume of players scragging an opponent by the head-guard should be punishable by a significant ban because of the dangers of inflicting a neck injury, let alone a serious eye-poke.
It may not merit the same severity as the six month ban given to Dylan Hartley in 2007, when he was found guilty of gouging Wasps flankers James Haskell and Jonny O’Connor. The same is true of the 18 months given to Stade Francais prop David Attoub, and the six months handed down to scrum-half Julian Dupuy, after a joint gouging assault on the Ulster flanker Stephen Ferris.
However, when it concerns the high ball, or the tackle, the disciplinary code now says that there is no excuse for reckless endangerment of opponents. That is why the punishment for any facial attack should not be lenient. If there is serious contact with the eyes – with the danger of retinal damage – there should be at least a three-month ban for reckless endangerment if a six month ban is handed down for deliberate gouging.
The main aim is to avoid damage to the eyes – and tough sentences would get the message across faster than anything else. The simple message to players has to be that reckless contact with the eyes is as much of a no-go zone as gouging. Sinckler should consider this a let off. He made a big impact off the bench for the Lions in New Zealand in all three Tests, and is a tight-head with genuine world-class potential both as a scrummager and a carrier.
However, if he does not sort out his disciplinary issues, his England career could stall, and possibly permanently. Sinckler cannot rely on the goodwill of Jones, or any future England coach, to rehabilitate a serial offender – even though Jones might have done so with Hartley because of his leadership qualities.
You sense Sinckler will have to take control now if he wants his rugby career to go from strength to strength. As for the disciplinary process, the time for the various judicial bodies to have a clear and consistent sentencing policy is long overdue.