Rugby Blindside recently spoke with David Barnes about the role of the Discipline Department within the RFU.
A little about you… Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I have been RFU Head of Discipline since 2017, having previously held the roles of Chairman and Rugby Director at the Rugby Players Association.
Upon completing my degree at Durham University I was lucky enough to catch the start of professionalism and moved straight into the Premiership winning squad at Newcastle Falcons. A move to Harlequins followed before I spent the majority of my playing career at Bath, where I retired from playing in 2011.
During my time as a player, I was always focused on having a role away from the playing field and focused a lot of my time representing the Rugby Players Association as their Chairman, which in turn give me an invaluable insight into the running and administration of the game in England.
Can you tell us more about your role as Head of Discipline at the RFU?
The RFU Head of Discipline has a wide remit and is responsible for overseeing all on field discipline, citing in the top leagues and for investigating any breaches of RFU regulations. The Head of Discipline is the only person in regulation who can issue charges against any person or club. The RFU discipline team is directly responsible for the top 4 men’s leagues, the Allianz Premier 15s and the BUCS Super Rugby competition. In a normal year, we would be responsible for presenting approximately 150 cases.
Responsibility for discipline in the lower leagues is mostly delegated to the Constituent Bodies (CBs) who see approximately 1500+ cases a year. We are responsible for ensuring that the many volunteers that give their time up to administer the game are appropriately trained and supported throughout the season.
How does the RFU Disciplinary Department interact with community clubs in helping to maintain rugby’s core values?
Rugby prides itself on its core values of, Teamwork, Respect, Enjoyment, Discipline and Sportsmanship and we work closely with the CB discipline teams to ensure that these are upheld at all times.
There are so many amazing people in the game who give up so much of their time to ensure others can enjoy our sport and thankfully instances of behaviour against the core values are low.
However, as a game we all understand the importance of protecting these values and I work closely with the local discipline teams to proactively work with the game but also to act when we see behaviour that is not in line with our values.
We have a renewed focus on ensuring that the match officials are given the appropriate respect at all levels of the game and support all the CBs in issuing charges against players, coaches and spectators that abuse or disrespect any match official.
Rugby is not alone in facing issues involving the use of social media and postings that are clearly not in line with the core-values.
This will be a key focus for us over the next season and we will be educating first but then issuing charges against people whose postings fall short of what is expected.
How does the disciplinary process differ for age-grade rugby compared with senior rugby?
The age-grade disciplinary process focuses on a child centric approach, in that people who know the player, often people within their own club, are responsible for administering the disciplinary process.
There is a specific age-grade sanction table that is typically less than the adult sanction process and is also measured in matches as opposed to weeks.
This ensures that players who play at schools and clubs are not unfairly punished for any offence.
Each CB is required to have an age-grade discipline secretary who has experience in dealing with age-grade players and is able to assist all clubs with any discipline issues.
For age-grade players there is a focus on keeping them
involved in the game, addressing any discipline issues but most importantly, helping them understand the core values that we expect of all our players.
As well as on-field incidents, the RFU Discipline Department also looks at off-field cases in rugby. Can you tell us more about this area of game regulation?
The RFU Discipline department is responsible for overseeing any breach of the RFU regulations and in a
normal season that will include breaches related to player registrations, competitions and financial/ Payment of Player regulations.
Within the RFU, the discipline team sits within the wider legal and governance team and we work closely on ensuring that all the regulations are complied with.
Each season will present a unique set of regulatory cases for the RFU to deal with. These often are the more complex issues we have to investigate and often involve the need for us to instruct specialist outside counsel.
In the last season we have seen a number of misconduct cases for breaches of the COVID protocols, the cancellation of the England v Barbarians match being the highest profile example, which resulted in sanctions for a large number of players.
During a normal season we would also expect to see a number of integrity cases involving breaches of the betting and anti-doping rules.
Whilst a lot of work is done proactively educating the game on these issues, there are still a number of people who breach the regulations and receive significant bans as a result.
Anyone who has spent time reading through the vast RFU regulatory handbook will be aware of the multitude of regulations that are in place to ensure the game continues to thrive, at all levels.
It is essential that we ensure that these regulations, all put in place by the games representatives, the RFU Council, are consistently applied to each club, at every level.
Doping is a continuous issue faced by the RFU Discipline Department. Can you tell us about the initiatives taken in tackling this issue?
The RFU’s mission is to protect the spirit of rugby from being undermined by doping and to protect a player’s fundamental right to participate in Clean Sport.
The RFU prioritises education and testing in the fight for Clean Sport, which involves initiatives such as outreach events, academy education days, online training and club seminars.
These initiatives have been specifically designed to deliver key education messages to the appropriate target groups.
Intelligence led testing takes place throughout the
game and is coordinated through our close strategic partnerships with UK Anti-Doping and World Rugby.
How does the RFU Discipline Department uphold the RFU Safeguarding policy?
Whilst the RFU Safeguarding and Discipline departments operate independently, there is a co-ordinated approach to many of the issues that we face as a sport.
Often issues that we become aware of in the age-grade game involve aspects that involve Safeguarding and also discipline for regulatory breaches.
We will always work together to ensure that the child is protected and that any regulatory or discipline issues that we become aware of during any investigation are addressed at the same time as any safeguarding concerns.
The RFU Discipline department is also responsible for representing the RFU in an any appeal processes and ensuring that any safeguarding barring orders are strictly followed.
How has the coronavirus impacted the RFU Discipline Department?
Like all sports, Coronavirus has had a huge impact on Rugby.
From a practical point of view, the discipline
department has been responsible for ensuring that the health and wellbeing of the players is paramount during this period and this has meant that we have been responsible for overseeing the compliance of the COVID protocols within all clubs.
This has involved instructing a newly formed team of
people to visit clubs throughout this period and, working on an education first policy, help the clubs through this difficult period.
The team has also had a role in the independent oversight of any contact tracing processes to ensure that
all close contacts have been identified correctly.
Coronavirus has also brought significant change to the discipline process. Traditionally players, at both an RFU and CB level, would be required to attend discipline hearings in person.
However, despite some initial reluctance, all hearings have been run on video calls. Video hearings allow greater flexibility for the players without compromising the process and this is something that will be continued moving forward.
With the ground restrictions, the Citing Officers, have been unable to attend grounds and have also been working on a remote basis.
We have been fortunate to have been well supported by the TV companies who have ensured they could still get all the additional non-broadcast angles of any incidents and this in turn has ensured the process has continued to work without any decline in standards.
The team have also had a role in the independent oversight of any contact tracing processes to ensure that all close contacts have been identified correctly.
Coronavirus has also brought significant change to the discipline process. traditionally players, at both an RFU and CB level, would be required to attend discipline hearings in person.
And finally, what are your future plans for the RFU Discipline Department?
The Discipline department is no different to any RFU department in that we are accountable to our member clubs and are always looking at ways to improve what we do, collaborate with the clubs/ CB’s and challenge the way we currently do things.
The last 18 months have allowed us to change many processes, virtual hearings and better use of technology being an obvious one. These changes will make huge efficiency gains and reduce volunteer workload.
In terms of approach, I expect to see a slight change in approach, especially within the age-grade game to a more restorative practises approach to sanctioning.
Whilst simple match bans have a place for certain offences, I am excited by the work coming out of NZ where a new approach to sanctioning is seeing positive impacts on the players and the club as a whole.
We expect to trial this approach across certain areas this season.
Like everyone else, I hope that the Coronavirus restrictions will be behind us next season and we can all look forward to some form of normality moving forward.
This article appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of Rugby Blindside magazine – Read the full issue here