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Page last updated at 06:28 GMT, Thursday, 6 May 2010 07:28 UK

Player blinded in one eye after gouge speaks out

By Alastair Eykyn
BBC 5 live rugby commentator

Clarence Harding reveals the state of his eye three days after being gouged
Clarence Harding reveals the state of his eye three days after being gouged

Clarence Harding knows exactly who did it.

Seconds after it happened, he glanced up and saw a man's face looking back at him, as if checking the damage he had inflicted.

The pain did not allow him to open his eyes for two days subsequently. Shortly after that, he was told that he would be blind in one eye for the rest of his life.

It was about 2.20pm on Saturday, 17 January this year. Gravesend, in the sixth tier of English rugby, were taking on their London One South league rivals Maidstone at Mote Park in a Kent Cup game.

Gravesend's strapping South Africa-born number eight picked the ball up from the base of a scrum, and drove into the opposition.

Harding was well tackled, went to ground and placed the ball down for his team-mates to ruck over the top of him, and begin another attack.

As the ball left his hands, he felt his head jerk backwards, and a searing pain rip through his right eye. The optical nerve had been severed.

"To feel something slide inside your eyeball, and get pulled out at an astonishing rate… I can't fathom the words to describe the immense pain," he told me.

Gougers should be given a criminal record. Banning them for a few weeks is absolutely pointless

Clarence Harding

His surgeon explained to him that in 15 years of operating, he has never seen an eye damaged to this extent by an "accident". Such was the force required to rupture the globe of the eye.

This is the cold, terrifying testimony of an eye-gouge victim.

Clarence Harding is a big, strong, 27-year-old who loves life, loves people, loves music - and still loves rugby. A more amiable giant it would be hard to find.

Horrified at his misfortune, angry at the cowardice of his attacker, he remains a rational, phlegmatic character with a determination to get on with the business of living.

But his livelihood is threatened. Describing himself as a "glorified roadie", Harding builds stages and sets for big corporate events. For much of the time, he is effectively on a building site.

"I am a health-and-safety risk," he says. "I have no vision on my right side, which means that I can turn around and walk straight into a truss, or a drill bit. Because of that, I've not been able to work properly.

"Last month I worked just 16 hours in total - and I get paid by the hour. I've already started looking around for other things but not many people want to employ someone who is visually impaired."

Each minute presents Harding with new challenges, new obstacles to overcome. Lifting his toothbrush in the morning is an exercise fraught with difficulty.

Robbed of his depth perception, he has to aim four inches behind it, to ensure he picks it up. Aiming into a lavatory is a hazardous activity. So too, the simple task of walking up steps.

If in the future there is a serious incident of gouging, and somebody is seriously injured, and the culprit comes before me, then he is in danger of a life ban

RFU disciplinary chief Judge Jeff Blackett

When these difficulties are allied to the anger and frustration he and his family feel at the way he was victimised, it is not hard to understand when he says "I have aged 10 years".

Harding has had phenomenal support from Gravesend Rugby Club, from his team-mates and their supporters. He has had little or no help so far from the game at large.

The game's governing body, the Rugby Football Union, have been in touch with the club chairman solely regarding the disciplinary details. It is bound to wait until the Kent police have concluded their lengthy criminal investigations.

The RFU insist they will then step in, and begin their own disciplinary process.

Harding himself has had no contact with the game's authorities. "I have not heard a single thing, personally, from the RFU… no phone call, nothing."

For a sport which prides itself on looking after its own, this seems to be an alarming oversight.

Unsurprisingly, he has strong views on punishments for those found guilty of gouging. Harding can see little merit in playing suspensions.

"What's the point? What these people are doing by gouging somebody is ruining their lives, and they get away with a little slap on the wrists?" he says.

"They're going to go back and do it again. They should be kicked off a rugby pitch for ever and ever. And even that's not long enough. Gougers should be given a criminal record. Banning them for a few weeks is absolutely pointless."

Tucked away as a footnote in the IRB regulations on punishments for gouging offences is the provision to ban a player for life. No-one has yet decided to take that step.

David Attoub was found to have deliberately made contact with Ferris's eye
Stade Francais prop David Attoub was banned for 70 weeks for this offence

The RFU's disciplinary officer Judge Jeff Blackett has been arguably the strongest voice on the subject.

He made an example of the Stade Francais prop David Attoub, after finding him guilty of gouging Ulster's Stephen Ferris in a Heineken Cup pool match in December. Attoub was banned for 70 weeks, the second longest ban ever handed out for the offence.

Compare this with the eight-week suspension handed down to Springboks flanker Schalk Burger after he gouged Irish wing Luke Fitzgerald in the second Test against the Lions in South Africa last summer.

Blackett is convinced gouging is on the rise. "It was exceptional when I started in 2003," he said. "Now the instances are higher, both in the professional and the amateur game.

"If the long sanctions, such as the 70 weeks which I gave Attoub, don't do the trick, then we need to have even higher sanctions, until people realise that it's just not worth doing.

"If in the future there is a serious incident of gouging, and somebody is seriously injured, and the culprit comes before me, then he is in danger of a life ban."

As for Clarence Harding, he has a message for the perpetrator of this momentary act which will blight his life forever.

"Be a man about this. I know you've done it, you know you've done it. Come forward and admit to what you've done. Prove to everyone that you're a man. Take it on the chin."

Listen to the full interviews with Clarence Harding and Judge Jeff Blackett on 5 live rugby on Thursday, 6 May, from 2000-2100

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see also
Police probe rugby eye 'gouging'
30 Jan 10 |  Kent
Attoub loses gouging ban appeal
04 Mar 10 |  Rugby Union
Dupuy ban shortened by one week
14 Jan 10 |  Rugby Union
Dupuy handed 24-week gouging ban
18 Dec 09 |  Irish
Quinlan talks of 'massive regret'
26 Aug 09 |  Rugby Union
Quinlan contests ban in Lions bid
18 May 09 |  Rugby Union
Gouging penalties to be reviewed
02 Jul 09 |  Rugby Union
Boks coach backs down over Burger
29 Jun 09 |  Rugby Union
SA's Burger handed eight-week ban
29 Jun 09 |  Rugby Union
Burger 'gouge' angers Fitzgerald
27 Jun 09 |  Rugby Union
Saints withdraw Hartley's appeal
25 Apr 07 |  Northampton

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