Officials fail to pack a punch
Graham Jenkins
May 15, 2011
Leicester's Manu Tuilagi and Northampton's Chris Ashton shake hands, Leicester Tigers v Northampton Saints, Aviva Premiership Play-Off Semi-Final, Welford Road, Leicester, England, May 14, 2011
All was forgiven if not forgotten between Leicester Manu Tuilagi and Northampton's Chris Ashton at the final whistle © Getty Images

Leicester's Aviva Premiership semi-final showdown with Northampton always had the makings of a classic contest but sadly it hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

And while Manu Tuilagi's brutal assault on Chris Ashton looks set to attract the attention of the citing commissioner, the latest high-profile error from an official warrants just as much scrutiny.

The rugby was absorbing and enthralling throughout but not even the class shown by the vast majority of the Tigers' players in seeing off the challenge of an equally talent-heavy Saints side can detract from the main talking point - Tuilagi's fiery nature and the failure of referee Wayne Barnes and his assistant Robin Goodliffe to deal with the incident appropriately.

But let's start with the incident itself. It does not make pleasant viewing and the joys of high definition and slow motion only serve to highlight the ferocity of the attack. Ashton was quite rightly aggrieved by Tuilagi's high challenge off the ball and shoved his already grounded opponent. Tuilagi's responses was to leap to his feet and unload a three-punch combination that that culminated with a vicious right hook that some how failed to floor Ashton.

Quite simply Tuilagi should have been sent off but he escaped with a yellow card. "Chris Ashton did go over and give him a push, but you cannot react with three punches to the head without a red card," commented a surprisingly restrained Saints boss Jim Mallinder. And Ashton, having been patched up, received the same punishment after the assistant referee mistook his attempts to fend off his attacker as punches. Even if his shove had been seen as retaliation, such a sanction would still have been unfounded after Leicester fly-half Toby Flood was let off for a similar reaction earlier in the game following some roughing up by Saints hooker Dylan Hartley.

It was a clear injustice that surely had an impact on the game as a whole. Tuilagi remained a constant threat in defence and attack for the remaining 50 minutes of the contest when he should have been cooling his heels on the sidelines. His removal would not have totally blunted Leicester as a force such is their omni-potent mix but you would expect a side as good as Northampton to be able to exploit an opponent one man light.

As a result, the shortcomings of Barnes, who was following the ball and therefore did not see the incident, and Goodliffe, who saw it but at the same time got it wholly wrong, become huge not only in the context of the game but also of the season. It seems the media storm and public flogging that assistant referee Peter Allan received in the wake of his error during Wales' controversial Six Nations victory over Ireland was wasted on Goodliffe.

His error was a major game-changer and like Allan he was guilty of seeing ad reporting things that simply did not happen. In Allan's case it was the fact that the correct ball had been used at a quickly-taken lineout while for Goodliffe it was phantom punches. "Disgraceful" and "the worst call of the season" is how Sky Sports commentator Stuart Barnes labelled their handiwork and not even the most committed critics of the former England fly-half's punditry work could argue with that sentiment.

RFU referees boss Ed Morrison has a couple of interesting phone calls to make this week and while Wayne Barnes' role is unlikely to do his reputation irreparable harm as he warms up for the World Cup later this year, Goodliffe can expect a dressing down of sorts.

Tuilagi connects with a vicious right during his assault on Ashton © Sky Sports

And what of Tuilagi's immediate future? Well, if the immensely-talented 19-year-old was an outsider for World Cup selection before this game then his actions at Welford Road have hindered his chances yet further. England manager Martin Johnson was amongst those watching the game and given the question marks over his midfield he must have hung his head as Tuilagi went after Ashton - and not only because the Saints' winger is one of his key weapons.

Tuilagi, and his brother Alesana, walk a fine line when it comes to tackling, such is there South Sea Island stock. The power, pace and aggression they both boast make them formidable parts of the Leicester armoury but their propensity to hit a player with a swinging arm or shoulder tackle rather than wrap them up always leave them open to punishment.

Concerns about their approach have been expressed elsewhere on this site previously and others have questioned whether the younger Tuilagi has the required temperament to make the step up to the international stage. There is little doubt he has the talent but I fear his moment of madness on Saturday answered the question as to whether he is ready for the cauldron that is the Test match arena. His raw ability is part of what makes him such an exciting and eye-catching prospect and he strikes fear into opponents who probably have boots older than him.

Both those facts make him invaluable to Tigers director of rugby Richard Cockerill, someone else not shy of a confrontation, but there has to be a satisfactory balance between brute force and mindless barbarity. Name me a world-class centre with a fuse that short?

A citing, for contravention of Law 10(4)(a) - Striking another player with the hand, arm or fist, is inevitable for Tuilagi and even a guilty plea is unlikely to prevent a hefty ban. The mid-range entry point for striking is five weeks' suspension and he may be lucky to escape with such a punishment but even that would be costly. Such a sanction would rule him out of the Premiership Final and more importantly the Churchill Cup which is set to be a vital proving ground for those looking to force their way into the World Cup reckoning.

That would leave Johnson the option of blooding him in one of the two World Cup warm-up matches against Wales in August or a third against Ireland when it is surely time to fine tuned and not experiment? But there is hope for Tuilagi, if not time, with the controlled aggression of the once wayward Saints duo of Hartley and lock Courtney Lawes a fine example for the Leicester youngster to aspire.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.

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