Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Black art rears ugly head

Richie McCaw was the victim of wandering French fingers in New Zealand's games against France at last year's World Cup. Photo / APNZ
Richie McCaw was the victim of wandering French fingers in New Zealand's games against France at last year's World Cup. Photo / APNZ

Melbourne Rebels lock Adam Brynes is in the dock accused of eye-gouging. He is appealing the 10-week ban handed down for having a bit of a rummage in the eyes of Waratahs midfielder Tom Carter.

The evidence was convincing even in real time yet the Rebels have mounted the age-old defence of: "We believe any contact made was absolutely accidental and without intent."

But it really doesn't work like that. Fingers never accidentally stray into opponents' eye-sockets; it's not as if they have a mind of their own.

The All Blacks have hardly trod gently over the years with several notorious incidents earning them a certain reputation - but eye-gouging does not figure large in the realms of All Black or New Zealand rugby history, though the rest of the rugby world would take a month to stop laughing if New Zealand officials expressed concern about foul play.

However, gouging is always deliberate and it is the single worst act in rugby.

New Zealand was horrified by the pictures of Herald on Sunday columnist Richard Loe gouging Greg Cooper in 1992 and then of Troy Flavell appearing to push his thumb deep into the eye of Steve Skinnon in 1997.

Since then gouging has not been a problem here or in Super Rugby - but it has been rife in Europe.

The French have never seen it as taboo and were even at it in the World Cup final when Aurelien Rougerie appeared to be working hard to gouge Richie McCaw.

"The French are worse when they are scared," said McCaw in December, finally acknowledging he'd been a victim.

"They were as bad as they have been and were going for the eyes. My eye was a bit sore for a while and I was struggling to see for a bit. I was surprised they didn't cite him."

But the All Blacks weren't surprised it had happened.

In the closing minutes of the third test against France in 2009, Tony Woodcock was left sore and bruised around his face after a contretemps late in the game.

All Blacks skills coach Mick Byrne had been on the touchline when it happened, even breaking it up.

"That little prick [French halfback Morgan Parra] was giving Woody [All Black prop Tony Woodcock] a facial," explained an irate Byrne in the carpark of Marseilles' Stade Velodrome.

"He had his fingers in Woody's eyes and up his nose."

Known as la fourchette in France, it is considered part of the game.

Former Wellington lock John Daniell, who spent much of his career in France, devotes an entire chapter to eye-gouging in his book: Confessions of a Kiwi Mercenary.

The most poignant line: "It is a particularly unpleasant feeling having a dirty fingernail scrape across the back wall of your eye-socket. Within a month of being in France, I lost count of how many times it happened to me."

He didn't lose count of how many times gouging received any kind of proper sanction. That was just once and even then Richard Nones of Colomiers was only suspended because the game fell under the jurisdiction of the Heineken Cup rather than the French league.

Greater contact between French and British and Irish clubs through the Heineken Cup may in fact be the reason gouging has become rife throughout Europe.

In the past five years, the litany of offenders has been staggering.

Offenders suspended for gouging include Martin Corry, Neil Best and Mauro Bergamasco - respective captains of England, Ireland and Italy; Romania's captain Marius Tincu, England wing Mark Cueto and French halfback Julien Dupuy.

Ireland flanker Alan Quinlan blew his chance to go on tour with the Lions in 2009 when he was suspended for gouging in the Heineken Cup semifinal. A few weeks after Quinlan's gouge, Sergio Parisse was found guilty of the same act on Isaac Ross and then Schalk Burger marred the Lions series by gouging Luke Fitzgerald in the second test.

That led to the IRB releasing a statement: "In light of recent high-profile cases, the IRB is launching a review of the existing disciplinary sanction structure relating to contact with the eye or eye area in order to send out the strongest possible message that such acts of illegal or foul play will not be tolerated, and have no place in a game that has at its core the pillars of fair play, respect and camaraderie."

Tougher sanctions haven't proven to be the deterrent the IRB hoped.

Nor, sadly, did the news that Gavin Quinnell, the younger brother of British Lion Scott, lost an eye when he was gouged in a Welsh club game in 2010.

The authorities - including the police - seem almost powerless to do anything to stamp out gouging except to rely on the humanity and decency of the men on the field not to do it.

- Herald on Sunday

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