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Aviva Premiership
Tigers coaching duo escape punishment
ESPNscrum Staff
May 23, 2011
Leicester boss Richard Cockerill is all smiles, Leicester press conference, Oadby Town Football Club, Leicester, England, May 23, 2011
Tigers boss Richard Cockerill had plenty to smile about at his side's press conference earlier today © Getty Images
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Leicester director of rugby director Richard Cockerill and coach Matt O'Connor have escaped punishment following an investigation into allegations that they abused the match officials during their Aviva Premiership play-off semi-final clash against Northampton.

RFU Disciplinary Officer, His Honour Judge Jeff Black, has ruled that there is insufficient evidence to suggest that they, "abused match officials or otherwise acted in a way which was prejudicial to the interests of the Game of Rugby Union" and as a result they are free to participate in Saturday's final showdown with Saracens at Twickenham.

Saracens' former director of rugby Brendan Venter received a lengthy match-day suspension last year for making provocative and inappropriate gestures and comments towards Leicester supporters during a league game at Welford Road and as a result was not allowed to attend the Premiership Final, also against Leicester.

Cockerill and O'Connor found themselves at the centre of newspaper reports immediately following Tigers' 11-3 victory over Northampton, a volatile game that saw Leicester centre Manu Tuilagi sin-binned for punching Saints' England wing Chris Ashton. Tuilagi was subsequently cited, and then banned for five weeks by an RFU disciplinary panel, ruling him out of this season's Twickenham club showpiece.

Blackett said a number of newspaper articles the day after the game reported Cockerill and O'Connor remonstrating loudly about the match officials' performance and making abusive comments to RFU elite referee development manager Brian Campsall, who was sat a few seats away from them. Blackett revealed "a small number of e-mail complaints" had been received by the RFU from members of the public alleging "foul mouth abuse and ranting" by the Leicester coaches.

The RFU launched an investigation, with statements sought from Campsall, members of the public and journalists who had witnessed the alleged misconduct. Campsall said he had not been aware of what was said by any individual during the game because of its intensity, the fact he was writing in his notebook and listening to the match officials.

"I was not aware of what was said by any individual during the game due to the intensity of the game, and was too busy writing in my notebook during this game - as well as listening to the match officials - to notice anything that was being said by coaches from either team," he said in his statement.

"Indeed, on only one occasion did I catch the eye of Richard Cockerill, who was a good distance away from me, which was following a penalty awarded against Northampton for not rolling away post-tackle two metres from the Northampton line and the referee decided not to give a yellow card. I acknowledged Richard Cockerill's comments with a raised hand. I could not tell what he was saying because of the crowd noise. At no stage in the day was I verbally abused by either team's coaches."

The investigation also found that those fans who did respond to inquiries had not personally witnessed the abuse but were reacting to the press reports while Blackett also revealed that no one from the press provided a witness statement giving direct evidence of what is alleged to have occurred.

Criticism was heard via BBC Northampton's radio coverage of the game - Cockerill was heard to say: "He's meant to be a Test referee. In the biggest match of the season. It's not bloody good enough. Yellow card." - but on that evidence Blackett ruled that there was nothing that was prejudicial to the interests of the Game.

Blackett also spoke with senior Leicester officials Simon Cohen and Peter Wheeler. Cohen described both coaches as being "emotionally involved in the game," but said there had been no foul or abusive language used. Wheeler, meanwhile, said Cockerill had taken seriously a written warning he received from Blackett last year (following a play-off game against Bath at Welford Road) and was "now careful not to swear or abuse match officials."

In conclusion he said, "I have considered whether, notwithstanding Brian Campsall's evidence, the general conduct of the Leicester coaches was inappropriate. The only direct evidence (as opposed to newspaper reports) suggests that they were both voluble in their support and advice throughout the game, and there was clearly recorded criticism of a refereeing decision not to award a yellow card at some stage in the match. On the evidence before me, there is nothing which suggests that any of this was prejudicial to the interests of the game.

"Rugby is an emotional game and those involved often express their emotions loudly. However, they must to so within the boundaries of the core values of the Game - particularly Respect and Discipline. Any coach who abuses match officials will be dealt with severely by the RFU, but I cannot take action in relation to allegations which are denied unless I have evidence which will stand up to scrutiny. In this case there is none."

Blackett's full statement read:

I have decided not to take any action against Richard Cockerill or Matt O'Connor in relation to allegations that they abused match officials or otherwise acted in a way which was prejudicial to the interests of the Game of Rugby Union during the Aviva Premiership semi-final between Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints on 14 May 2011. My reasons are set out below.

Background

On 15 May a number of articles appeared in the media reporting that Richard Cockerill and Matt O'Connor remonstrated loudly about the performance of the match officials, and made abusive comments, to Brian Campsall, the RFU's Elite Referee Development Manager who was a few seats away from the Leicester coaches. It was also reported that Matt O'Connor, at one stage, punched and damaged a Perspex shield in front of the coach's desk. It was reported that Brian Campsall was forced to listen to a constant stream of "advice" about the failings of the referees yelled in his direction by the Leicester coaches.

The RFU also received a small number of e-mail complaints from members of the public alleging "foul mouth abuse and ranting" and "use of unpleasant language" by the Leicester coaches. These complaints came from people describing themselves as fans.

Further reports appeared in the press on the following days and Richard Cockerill subsequently made a statement to the press that he did not use foul or abusive language and he was not aggressive.

As a result of these reports and complaints, the RFU Disciplinary Manager Bruce Reece-Russel commenced an investigation. He sought a full statement from Brian Campsall and asked the members of the public who had complained to provide full statements about what they had witnessed. He also sought (through the RFU Corporate Communications Manager) statements from members of the press who reported that they had witnessed the alleged misconduct. The results of this investigation were passed to me on 20 May.

The Evidence

Brian Campsall stated:

"At the end of the game on Saturday at Welford Roach I was approached by Paul Ackford (Sunday Telegraph correspondent) re the behaviour of the Leicester coaches Richard Cockerill and Matt O'Connor. I told him although I could hear both of them on occasions - and Dorian West occasionally - I was not aware of what was said by any individual during the game due to the intensity of the game, and was too busy writing in my notebook during this game, as well as listening to the match officials, to notice anything that was being said by coaches from either team. Indeed on only one occasion did I catch the eye of Richard Cockerill, who was a good distance away from me, which was following a penalty awarded against Northampton for not rolling away post tackle 2 metres from the Northampton try line and the referee decided not to give a yellow card. I acknowledged Richard Cockerill's comments with a raised hand, I could not tell what he was saying because of the crowd noise. After the match nobody from either team approached me. I telephoned Ed Morrison to tell him about the questions from Paul Ackford and another journalist. At no stage in the day was I verbally abused by either team's coaches."

Two members of the public who had complained did not respond to the Disciplinary Manager's request for further and better particulars. Those who did respond all said that they had not personally witnessed the abuse but were reacting to the press reports. Not one stated that they had actually been near the incidents or directly witnessed what had occurred. Responses included:

"I am afraid I am not going to be much help to you. My view of the match was from a TV screen. I also read various articles in the press."

"Can I suggest you read the Independent on Sunday or the Times today (Monday) or any of the sports press, or watch the TV interviews afterwards - they had full details. Not sure why you need a letter, the abuse behaviour has been widely reported."

None of the press reporters or correspondents has provided a witness statement giving direct evidence of what is alleged to have occurred.

Further inquiries

I have also spoken to Simon Cohen and Peter Wheeler of Leicester Tigers. Simon Cohen gave direct evidence of his observations of the behaviour of the Leicester coaches during the match. He described the coaches as being emotionally involved in the game. The coaches stood up and shouted, displaying emotion at various stages through the game, but he asserted very strongly that there was no foul or abusive language. He opined that this emotional engagement in the game was not prejudicial to the image of the game and was not objected to by the fans who were around them. Peter Wheeler told me that Richard Cockerill took my written warning (which I gave him at the end of last season) seriously and he is now careful not to swear or abuse match officials. He himself strenuously denied the newspaper reports of inappropriate behaviour.

I also asked BBC Radio Northampton for commentary they may have made during the match so it could be established whether any abuse had been recorded. The only discernible comment made by Richard Cockerill is: "He's meant to be a test referee. In the biggest match of the season. It's not bloody good enough. Yellow card." Decision

I have no reason to disbelieve what respected journalists have written in the press. Those who attended the match and sat near the coaches clearly observed something, although some have apparently reported third hand the observations of others.

However:

1. Not one of those journalists is seemingly prepared to provide a witness statement attesting to the substance of the alleged abuse, or to attend a disciplinary hearing as a witness. Without further evidence the contents of newspaper articles are insufficient to found a case against an individual who denies those allegations because that evidence can not be tested by cross examination in a hearing. Although hearsay evidence is admissible in a disciplinary hearing, it would have little weight if it was the only evidence, there was no corroboration and there was a complete denial of wrongdoing;

2. The complaints from members of the public do not help because all of them are based on reading the press - none of the complainants can provide any direct evidence;

3. The comments made by Richard Cockerill which were recorded by BBC Radio Northampton during the course of its match commentary are not particularly attractive for a coach, but they do not constitute match official abuse. There is no indication to whom they were directed, and it would be excessive to suggest that those comments constituted misconduct;

4. Finally, Brian Campsall himself - the reported subject of the abuse - states categorically that he did not hear any abuse. Indeed he goes further and states: "At no stage in the day was I verbally abused by either team's coaches."

I have considered whether, notwithstanding Brian Campsall's evidence, the general conduct of the Leicester coaches was inappropriate. The only direct evidence (as opposed to newspaper reports) suggests that they were both voluble in their support and advice throughout the game, and there was clearly recorded criticism of a refereeing decision not to award a yellow card at some stage in the match. On the evidence before me there is nothing which suggests that any of this was prejudicial to the interests of the Game. Rugby is an emotional game and those involved often express their emotions loudly. However, they must to so within the boundaries of the core values of the Game - particularly Respect and Discipline. Any coach who abuses match officials will be dealt with severely by the RFU, but I cannot take action in relation to allegations which are denied unless I have evidence which will stand up to scrutiny. In this case there is none.

Finally, I have referred this matter to Premiership Rugby Ltd, who share the RFU's concerns to ensure that coaches behave appropriately, and who are currently considering the issue in more general terms relating to matters such as where coaches should sit during matches. Nevertheless I repeat my previous warning to all those involved with teams that they must ensure that their behaviour does not cross unacceptable boundaries. In particular they must not be abusive to match officials and must show respect to others involved in the Game at all times. The media are interested in and scrutinise the behaviour of coaches and team management. They would do well to remember that they are public figures who must control themselves at all times if they are to support and uphold the integrity and image of the Game.

HHJ Jeff Blackett

RFU Disciplinary Officer

23 May 2011

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