Prop Attoub gets a 70-week ban for eye gouging

Player likely to appeal against ruling but the judge says the Stade Francais player tried to evade responsibility despite evidence.

The Stade Francais prop David Attoub has been hit with a mammoth 70-week ban from the sport for gouging after what the disciplinary chief who imposed the penalty labelled "the worst act of contact with the eyes that I have had to deal with". The ban, which has been backdated to start on December 18, means, as things stand, Attoub cannot play rugby again until April 22, 2011, ruling him out of the remainder of the European season and most of next term's campaign.

It is the second most severe suspension to have been handed out for a gouging offence in the professional era, exceeded only by the two-year ban handed to Richard Nones, a prop with the French club Colomiers, in 1999. Attoub, 28, was cited for gouging Ulster lock Stephen Ferris during a stormy European Cup clash on December 12 in Belfast, which the Irish province won 23-13. Judge Jeff Blackett, the disciplinary supremo at England's Rugby Football Union (RFU), who heard Attoub's case, said it was the International Rugby Board's (IRB) directive and the player's history of gouging, which included a suspension for contact with the eye area in a European match in the 2004-05 season, that led to such a lengthy penalty.

Blackett, who found Attoub guilty of the offence on Friday but only passed sentence when the disciplinary hearing reconvened this week, determined his action was "in the top-end in the level of seriousness for an offence of contact with the eye/eye area". Blackett said: "This is the worst act of contact with the eyes that I have had to deal with: it is a case of deliberate eye gouging." The initial hearing on December 18 was adjourned until January 15 to allow for more evidence to be gathered after doubts were cast on the veracity of photographs which showed the incident.

But Blackett's ruling made it clear he accepted the images were genuine and he delivered a damning indictment of Attoub's conduct. "When he was shown the incriminating photographs and asked to explain what he saw or what was happening he replied that he did not know," Blackett said. "He refused to accept the possibility that his finger was in the eye. It was this evasiveness which satisfied me that his account was less than truthful and that he knew that he had deliberately attacked the eyes of an opponent but was trying to evade responsibility."

Max Guazzini, the club president of Paris-based Stade Francais, said Attoub would appeal against his ban. The suspension follows a 24-week ban given to Attoub's teammate and scrum-half Julien Dupuy, who also gouged Ferris in the same match. Dupuy, who began the year as a starter in the French internat- ional line-up, appealed but his ban was cut by only a week following a hearing. * AFP