Stade Francais prop David Attoub has been hit with a mammoth 70-week ban from rugby union for gouging after what the disciplinary chief who imposed the penalty labelled “the worst act of contact with the eyes that I have had to deal with”.
The ban, which has been backdated to start on December 18, means, as things stand, Attoub cannot play rugby again until April 22, 2011 ruling him out of the remainder of the current European season and most of next term’s campaign.
It is the second-most severe suspension to have been handed out for a gouging offence in the professional era, exceeded only by the two-year ban handed to Richard Nones, a prop with French club Colomiers, in 1999.
Attoub, 28, was cited for gouging Ulster lock Stephen Ferris during a stormy European Cup clash on December 12 in Belfast that the Irish province won 23-13.
Eye gouging is regarded as one of the worst acts of foul play in the 15-man game and the International Rugby Board (IRB), the sport’s global governing body, have instructed disciplinary authorities to come down hard on those found guilty of the offence.
Judge Jeff Blackett, the disciplinary supremo at England’s Rugby Football Union (RFU), who heard Attoub’s case said it was the IRB directive and the player’s previous history of gouging, which included a suspension for contact with the eye/eye area in a European match in the 2004/05 season, that saw him impose a penalty which has the potential to end the forward’s career.
Blackett, who found Attoub guilty of the offence on Friday but only passed sentence when the disciplinary hearing reconvened on Monday, determined his action was “in the top-end in the level of seriousness for an offence of contact with the eye/eye area”.
In a statement issued on Tuesday, Blackett said: “This is the worst act of contact with the eyes that I have had to deal with: it is a case of deliberate eye gouging.”
The initial hearing on December 18 was adjourned until January 15 to allow for more evidence to be gathered after doubts were cast on the veracity of photographs which showed the incident.
But Blackett’s ruling made clear he accepted the images were genuine and he delivered a damning indictment of Attoub’s conduct.
“When he was shown the incriminating photographs and asked to explain what he saw or what was happening he replied that he did not know,” Blackett said. “He refused to accept the possibility that his finger was in the eye.
“It was this evasiveness which satisfied me that his account was less than truthful and that he knew that he had deliberately attacked the eyes of an opponent but was trying to evade responsibility.”
The ban follows a 24-week ban given to Attoub’s teammate and scrum-half Julien Dupuy who also gouged Ferris in the same match.
Dupuy, who began the year as a starter in the French international lineup, appealed but his ban was only cut by a week.
The severity of the punishments handed out to the Stade duo follows a crackdown in part caused by the furore over the mere eight-week ban on South Africa flanker Schalk Burger for gouging British and Irish Lions wing Luke Fitzgerald during last year’s second Test in Pretoria.
Max Guazzini, the club president of Paris-based Stade Francais, said Attoub would appeal against his ban, and railed against what he saw as an anti-French judgement.
“They based their punishment on the British system,” Guazzini told AFP.
“We tumbled upon an over zealous judge and with an anti-French bias.
“Burger got eight weeks for the same offence, Attoub receives 70 weeks. Where’s the sense in that.”
Rugby Union, traditionally, operates a policy of ‘universality’ when it comes to disciplinary punishments, meaning a ban in one tournament is applied to all competitions.
However, after Dupuy’s appeal hearing last week, Guazzini said he intended to try to have the scrum-half’s ban reduced still further, at least in domestic terms, through the French Rugby Federation (FFR) and the National Rugby League (LNR).
Guazzini could now take a similar course of action in Attoub’s case, having labelled Dupuy’s suspension as “totally unjustified”. — AFP