Your plea, appearance, past record – all are factors that can bring about a reduced ban for a player. But is the system right? Read this debate from our December 2020 issue

Face-off: Do we need to overhaul rugby’s disciplinary process?

Rugby correspondent for The Mail on Sunday

Rugby’s courtrooms are the equivalent of the bargain bin in the corner of your local convenience store: 50% off all year round.

Unless you are a terrorist, murderer or equivalent, there is a good chance the independent panel will find a mitigating factor to reduce your sanction.

Look at Owen Farrell’s hearing last September. Irrespective of your views on his high tackle on the then 18-year-old Wasps fly-half Charlie Atkinson, the disciplinary process that followed reduced the game to a laughing stock.

His red-mist moment was judged to be a top-end offence worthy of a ten-match ban. That would have ruled out the England captain for the start of the autumn Test campaign.

Yet Farrell walked away with a reduced five-match ban. Why? Because he had a positive testimonial from a charity, who have nothing to do with his on-pitch actions.

His tackle left Atkinson, fresh out of Abingdon Senior School, unconscious. As one writer put it, presumably the testimonials were not from Save the Children.

Face-off: Do we need to overhaul rugby's disciplinary process? Owen Farrell apologises to Charlie Atkinson

“Sorry, mate” Saracens’ Owen Farrell apologises to Charlie Atkinson for the high tackle last autumn (Getty)

Rugby’s disciplinarians often leave themselves open for ridicule. In his recent autobiography, Joe Marler revealed how he was advised to wear a suit and to cut his hair to reduce his chances of a long ban being handed down to him at a disciplinary hearing.

Actions should be judged at face value but that’s not the case. Instead, you’d better find yourself a good tailor and sign up at your local support centre, then you’re halfway there…

Trainee solicitor at Morgan Sports Law

Rugby’s judicial system does not need a radical overhaul – it just needs fine-tuning. Some people decry apparent inconsistencies. Yet in any system of sanctioning, there’s a necessary element of discretion and with discretion there is always room for disagreement.

Any reform should be focused on minimising that area for potential dispute.

One way this might be improved is by weighting the factors that disciplinary panels must consider when determining the seriousness of an offence and applying the off-field mitigating factors.

Different panels approach things differently: some place great importance on the impact on the victim; others focus on intent. Similarly, some panels are willing to overlook a player’s past disciplinary record if they are otherwise of excellent character.

Face-off: Do we need to overhaul rugby's disciplinary process? Manu Tuilagi is sent off, England v Wales

Off! Manu Tuilagi had two weeks taken off a 2020 ban for good conduct and immediate remorse (Getty)

I would place intent as the most important factor in the assessment of seriousness and would place a guilty plea as the most significant mitigating factor.

I’d also change the regulations so that there’s a limitation period on past disciplinary sanctions – for example, only bans from more than five years ago can be ignored for sanctioning purposes. These tweaks would require changes to World Rugby’s regulations but would go a long way to eliminating perceived inconsistencies.

On the whole, though, the system gets to a reasonable and fair outcome in the vast majority of cases. There is no need for wholesale reform to rugby’s disciplinary process.

What do you think? Email your views to

This debate first appeared in the December 2020 issue of Rugby World.