Chris Ashton has been handed a thirteen week ban for biting the prop Alex Waller. The Rugby Football Union disciplinary panel upheld the charge against the Saracens player stemming from their 27-12 Premiership victory over Northampton Saints.The second charge against him for biting later in the same match was thrown out. Ashton maintained his innocence and therefore he is not eligible for mitigation to lessen the sentence. An extra week was added to the twelve week ban because of his previous suspensions.
The ban has quashed any hopes Ashton may have had of being named in Eddie Jones’ England elite squad for the Autumn series. He will only be free to play again on the 19th December which gives him incredibly limited game time to prove himself worthy of a spot on the Six Nations side. Ashton dispelled rumours that he might make the move to France this week when he vowed to try and regain his place in the England side. Despite early promise, 39 caps and 19 England tries under his belt, his last England appearance was back in 2014 against New Zealand. His chances for an international revival might be slipping away from him. He was named in the Six Nations squad last year but his ten week ban for making contact with the eye of the Ulster Centre, Luke Marshall, ensured he was unable to play. Then he was then not named in the squad for the summer tour of Australia and turned down playing for the Saxons in South Africa. The recent suspension has ensured that Ashton has been banned for six of the nine months that Saracens will play in 2016.
Opinion on the strength of the sanction has varied across the Rugby community. Ashton doesn’t exactly have a clear record. He’s an enthusiastic player but his exuberance for the game sometimes gets the better of him. Paul Rees of the Guardian, said he needs ‘to reflect on a career that is burning itself out by the strength of its own heat.’ His first suspension came in his Northampton days in 2011 for tugging on the long hair of Alesana Tuilagi of Leicester Tigers and was proceeded by a one match ban the next season for receiving three yellow cards in a game. He has form and Saracens protestations that he has been victimised for his reputation fall on deaf ears. Yet, he has been unfortunate with the recent suspensions.
It comes in an era when the world rugby community has vowed to deter hands round the face of the opponent. So his January offence was categorised as eye-gouging rather than a reckless challenge or dangerous tackle causing him to be handed a weightier suspension. Austin Healy has protested in the Telegraph that the Ashton case indicates that health and safety have caused a culture of over-policing in the sport which has exacerbated the principle found more often in football of trying to get your opponent in trouble with the ref. He cities the two-week ban given to Tomas Francis for his shin making contact with Danny Care’s head as an example of this. The act appeared purely accidental and in the past the foot in the ruck rule was applied to try and stop the game being slowed down. Now it seems to have shifted to punishing head contact. Healy makes a valid point that it was unsurprising given that Waller’s arm was in Ashton’s mouth and pulling his head back. There’s limited damage you can make with a gum shield in but its the principle; biting has never been tolerated, even in the amateur era.
BITING HAS NEVER BEEN TOLERATED, EVEN IN THE AMATEUR ERA.
It does seem to be a harsh sentence given that the Brive player Matthieu Ugalde has just received a similar length. He was banned for fourteen weeks for an eye-gouging incident in the match against Grenoble. This was a far more intentional and dangerous than Ashton’s teeth marks on Waller’s arm. Yet, it has also worked in reverse, Manu Tuilagi was banned for ten weeks in 2011 when his third attempted swing connected with Ashton’s head. Yet, this sentence was then reduced because of Ashton’s provocation and Manu’s immaturity and inexperience. By now, at 29, with almost a decade of rugby union experience, Ashton should really know better than to rile his opposition.
The point is, whether the panel were influenced by Ashton’s reputation or not, if you are a player with a record of multiple past offences, why give the citing officer anything to question? Although the thirteen week ban seems harsh in isolation, with the past list of dangerous play it is hardly a surprising result.