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'I heard Julian White berate Manu for not punching properly'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

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Former Leicester CEO Simon Cohen has revisited the infamous 2011 occasion when Manu Tuilagi ignited a media storm after wildly punching Chris Ashton during a Premiership derby versus Northampton. Uncapped at the time, the sin-binned midfielder escaped a red card but was facing a ten-week ban following a citing that could have scuppered his England selection chances under Martin Johnson for that year’s World Cup. 

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Instead, the punishment was reduced to five weeks, resulting in the then 20-year-old missing the league final against Saracens but freeing him to train with England that summer and make his Test debut ahead of the finals in New Zealand. 

“This sort of incident is very damaging to the image of the game,” said the presiding disciplinary officer, Jeff Blackett, at the time. “Had it occurred in the high street an offender would have been prosecuted in the criminal courts.”

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Eleven years later, the X-rated Tuilagi incident was recalled during a guest appearance by Cohen on The Big Jim Show, the new interview series hosted by ex-Scotland player Jim Hamilton who got to know the administrator when he was on the books as a Leicester player in the mid-noughties.

The pair were initially talking about Dean Richards, the former Leicester boss who went on to suffer a lengthy suspension from the game due to the Bloodgate controversy at Harlequins in 2009.  

Cohen worked at Leicester from 2005 to 2020 in roles such as director of operations and then as CEO and his initial comments on Richards and his trial by media at Harlequins gave way to reflections on the Tuilagi media storm for his widely publicised punch on an opponent, someone that would soon become an England teammate of his. Here is how the conversation unfolded on the show:

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Simon Cohen: Dean was so unfortunate because what happened at Quins was not handled well by the authorities. I thought given there was a lot of that fake blood floating around and given that Dean was done mainly for a cover-up – but the cover-up was not to cover it up, the cover-up was to protect the people that worked for him because that was Dean. To take somebody’s livelihood away for three years was draconian and the punishment didn’t fit the crime in any way, shape or form for me. That was very, very harsh for such a great servant of the game. 

Jim Hamilton: It’s was trail by media like everything is now and that was probably the time where it came in with Tom Williams, who came off winking and stuff like that. Wow, that shifted the dial. You forget that, was it three years Deano that went down for?

SC: Yeah, terrible. That was a terrible, terrible punishment. The media does influence the punishment. I remember doing Manu’s hearing after he had punched Chris Ashton and Sky had shown that image of Chris Ashton’s head rocking backwards and forwards. 

JH: He took it well, didn’t he? 

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SC: The punch? 

JH: Yeah.

SC: Well, I went into the dressing room immediately afterwards to hear Julian White berate Manu for not punching properly. Apparently, he was on his tiptoes. 

JH: He was in the air, so no power. 

SC: Yes, no power. So yeah, I don’t know whether it was Manu’s best shot that Chris took. He was still standing, wasn’t he, which was quite a feat. Not so much with Geordie (Murphy) because there was an incident in another of the Saints games where Chris dragged Alesana by the hair which, given Alesana was Alesana and a Tuilagi, wasn’t the most sensible thing to do. Anyway, a free-for-all breaks out near the touchline and when I watched it back with Cockers [Richard Cockerill], we saw Geordie rush in and thump somebody twice and they didn’t even notice. 

JH: Yeah, Geordie is not much of a scrapper. But you know Ashy [Ashton], he is obviously at Leicester now. You know the story where the Tuilagis said, ‘You are never welcome back in Leicester’, so the Tuilagis have given him the keys to the stadium and the training facility in terms of he can turn up but he isn’t allowed to live in Leicester, he has to live outside. 

SC: They are very forgiving people, they live their lifestyle in a really good way and they move on. I’d be surprised if that was a true story.

JH: We’ll say it’s true…

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