The eye gouge still occurs in rugby but it is something that needs to be stamped out of the game for fear of serious and permanent damage
No one forgets their first gouge. Feeling another man’s finger burrowing into one’s eye is a frightening experience. It happened to me in my second match in France. I’d made a tackle, perfectly legitimate. One of their players piled in on top of me, his forearm pressing down on my back, his other arm snaking over my head. A finger searched out my eye socket. There’s a fleeting moment when you think it must be an accident. But then you realise this is no clumsy contact, this man is trying to blind me. It’s the only time on a rugby field I’ve been scared.
Fear turned to fury. With a roar I shook him off and unleashed a flurry of punches into his face. Teammates dragged us apart as the ref ran over. “Look at my eye!” I screamed, shaking with rage. The referee sent neither of us off. He hadn’t seen the gouge but he couldn’t miss my eye. It was red and weeping.
One might say being gouged is a rite of passage for anyone who’s played in France or played against the French. They even have a term of endearment for it: La Fourchette – the fork.
In one of his first games for Grenoble in 2003, Jamie Cudmore was viciously gouged in a match against Agen. The perpetrator was intent on doing some serious damage to the Canadian, and he succeeded, splitting open his eyeball.
Cudmore gave his Agen opponent a whack for his troubles, a less diplomatic approach than the one taken by John Eales during the 1999 World Cup final. After he and three of his teammates were gouged by the French (the All Blacks had complained of similar incidents in their semi-final defeat to Les Bleus), the Australian captain was heard over the referee’s microphone threatening to take his side off the field. “Eye-gouging is not what the game’s all about,” said Rod Macqueen, the Australia coach, after the game. “Something has to be done.”
Nothing has been done. In his outstanding memoir of playing professional rugby in France during the 2000s, Confessions of a Rugby Mercenary, Kiwi John Daniell recalled that in “fifteen years of rugby in New Zealand I had been gouged just twice, yet with my first month in France I had lost count.”
That echoes my experience. Most of my rugby was played in England but I had a season in Scotland and one in New Zealand, and in all those years I wasn’t gouged. Then I arrived in France. Admittedly it only happened twice in two seasons – and one shouldn’t forget that Dylan Hartley, Alan Quinlan and Shane Jennings are among several Home Nations players to have been banned for the offence in recent seasons – but there’s no doubt gouging is more prevalent in France.
But why? Daniell believed that “it is all wrapped up with the self-policing culture which I suppose is a hangover from the really bad old days when referees were either totally incompetent or
Good point, and so is Daniell’s observation that “there is no such word or concept as fair play in French…they have simply borrowed ours. Le fair-play.”
For centuries the game of ‘soule’ was the means by which French villages fought for bragging rights over their neighbours. The menfolk battled each other for hours – occasionally days – over fields and down lanes, trying to get a heavy wooden or leather ball into the other side’s goal. The only rule was there were no rules. You bit, butted, gouged, punched, kicked, whatever it took to get that ball in the goal. You certainly didn’t go around worrying about fair play. Don’t forget, the modern Olympics were invented by a high-minded Frenchman, Pierre de Coubertin, who wanted France and the rest of the world to embrace sport as nobly as the British had in the late 19th Century
De Coubertin had a particular passion for rugby and imported it to France in the hope that the sport of choice of the British public school would find favour with young Frenchmen. It did, but not in the way he envisaged. Northern Frenchmen shunned rugby, sticking with football, but in the more tribal south it was embraced with hot-blooded enthusiasm. Here was something fun and ferocious to replace soule.
The French have made efforts in recent years to make their rugby more ‘fair-play friendly’. Small strides have been made. But in my opinion, they’re hampered by the fact that there is no competitive team sport in the French school system. Instead they join local clubs, where the coaches may not have the time nor the inclination to instil in their young charges the spirit of sport. In schools’ rugby there is an onus on teachers to ensure their teams play their rugby hard but fair.
My brother is the headmaster of Warminster School in the south-west of England. What would happen, I asked him, if one of your pupils was sent off for violent conduct in a school match? There would be repercussions, he told me, because the pupil has brought the school into disrepute. His punishment would depend on the offence and on the extent of his remorse. There would definitely be a stern reprimand, and a letter of apology winging its way to the victim. Perhaps a ban, too.
French rugby is no longer the wild west it once was but gouging remains a curiously Gallic predilection. In the eyes of some grizzled old players Mathieu Ugalde‘s greatest crime in gouging Armand Batlle of Grenoble last month wasn’t the act itself but the fact it was so blatant.
The good gouger goes unseen