Rugby has long been known as a “game for hooligans played by gentlemen” but in recent months on-pitch and off-pitch antics by young players have led to the game being compared with their footballing counterparts. These young players, like any business, need to understand and manage the risks, or they will be throwing away potentially massive career earnings.

On Saturday 25 May 2013, Dylan Hartley, club captain of Northampton Saints, was sent off in the Aviva Premiership final against Leicester Tigers at Twickenham after verbally abusing match official Wayne Barnes. The England international, who has not always had the best disciplinary record, was called in front of a Rugby Football Union (RFU) Disciplinary hearing the following day (Sunday 26 May 2013).

The hearing was expedited due to Hartley having been picked to represent the British and Irish Lions on tour in Australia. The hooker was sent off for “ verbally abusing a match official”; contrary to Law 10(4)(s) and (m) of RFU Regulation 19.

Hartley pleaded not guilty, through his solicitor, and it was argued that although he did use the words ‘f***ing cheat’ they were in fact directed at the opposing hooker Tom Youngs, who has also been picked for the Lions Tour.

Prior to the incident both the player and the referee spoke to each other with Wayne Barnes saying “How you behave as Captain. Please keep comments to yourself or I may have to deal with it by way of penalty” – he reiterated this point by saying “Listen to me, just listen…listen. Talk to me like that and if I think it’s to me and I will have to deal with it. Do you understand?”  Hartley replied “Yes sir”.

Shortly after this, the referee awarded a scrum to Leicester and slow motion footage clearly showed, without sound, Hartley saying the word “f***king”. Hartley was immediately red carded.

At the moment, the International Rugby Board (IRB) Regulations are not aligned with our RFU Regulations (although this will take place next season). Consequently, the tribunal referred to IRB Regulation 17.17.3 which states that a disciplinary panel shall not make a finding contrary to the referee’s decision unless it is satisfied on the balance of probabilities that the referee’s decision was wrong. However, RFU Regulation 19.5.1 states that where a referee’s decision is challenged, the player is presumed innocent until his guilt is proved. Therefore the tribunal was required to see Hartley as innocent of verbal abuse unless they were satisfied on the balance of probabilities that he committed the offence.

The tribunal was satisfied, based on the evidence, that the requisite standard was met and found Hartley guilty of verbal abuse of a match official. Hartley’s legal representation tried to mitigate his likely sentence by stating the Hartley did not believe the referee was a cheat and that there was enormous amounts of pressure on the player. Unfortunately Hartley’s offending record also went against him with 26 weeks for contact with the eyes in April 2007; 8 weeks for biting in March 2012; 2 weeks for striking in December 2012.

Hartley was suspended for 11 weeks and will miss the entire Lions tour and three pre-season matches.

This season, rugby has been plagued with bad behaviour by young players. Danny Care was banned from driving for 16 months after pleading guilty to drink driving and also dropped from the Six Nations squad. Danny Cipriani was hit by a bus during a fancy dress pub crawl. Australian international Kurtley Beal will miss the Lions Tour to deal with personal issues following a number of suspensions due to breaches of “behavioural guidelines”. Beal has also been dealing with alcohol related issues. His team mate, winger, Digby Ioane has also had issues with alcohol, a number of off-field related incidents and contractual disputes.

With rugby’s popularity ever-growing, it is important that the fame, together with the increases in salary that these players will command, does not go to these young, but talented, players’ heads. Clubs need to provide guidance and education for these young players to cope with the stresses and strains of professional sport.  With the Lions Tour all but upon us lets hope this young talent will be showing their party tricks on the pitch rather than off it.