The Six Nations committee has been forced into a humiliating climbdown over the three-week ban it imposed on the Ireland prop Cian Healy this month for stamping on the England front-row Dan Cole, because it breached regulations.
The 25-year-old's suspension was designed so it officially started after a round of RaboDirect matches that fell on a rest weekend for the Six Nations, ensuring he missed Ireland's Tests against Scotland last Sunday and France next week. Ireland appealed against the ban, which was handed out by a three-man panel made up of representatives from the Welsh, Italian and French unions, and on Wednesday succeeded in arguing that it breached disciplinary regulations. Healy will be free to play against France, meaning he will effectively have missed one match having been cited for stamping on Cole's ankle during the 12-6 defeat by England in Dublin.
An appeal panel, chaired by Scotland's Lorne Crerar, accepted Healy's central argument that by spreading a three-week ban over four weeks, the original disciplinary committee had flouted the essential principle of the disciplinary process that bans are blanket.
The original panel was told that Healy would not ordinarily have played for Leinster against Treviso when the Six Nations was taking a break because Ireland would not have released him, which is why it started his ban at the beginning of the following week.
It did not have the discretion to do so because a ban automatically covers all tournaments and when Leinster announced their intention to play him against Treviso, the Six Nations' order to stand him down formed the basis for the successful appeal because it could be argued that the prop's ban was being applied to one tournament.
The International Rugby Board cannot get involved because the disciplinary processes in the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship in the southern hemisphere are the preserves of the unions involved. It has the right to appeal during the tour windows in June and November if it feels that due process has not been observed or a punishment has been too lenient, but that has not been extended to the tier-one tournaments.
A move was made last year to put the IRB in charge of the disciplinary process for all tournaments and Test matches, as it is in the World Cup. It would have appointed all citing officers and disciplinary panels, but the bid was defeated by the leading unions.
The Healy farce may prompt a rethink, but there is no pressure to change the way in which bans are measured, in weeks rather than matches, nor will football's model of different jurisdictions applying to domestic, European and international tournaments be adopted, not least because the most serious offences in rugby have maximum punishments measured in years rather than weeks.
Healy was given a five-week ban for stamping on Cole after the original panel decided the offence was in the medium range in terms of intent. It was reduced to three because of mitigating factors, such as his previous good record, and that meant, under the rules, missing two Leinster matches he would not have played in and the international at Murrayfield.
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