Cape Town - South African Rugby Union (SARU) president Oregan Hoskins on Wednesday applauded the life bans handed down to three players of the Fort Beaufort Barbarians Rugby Club for physically assaulting a referee.
The trio - Edmund Gunn, Clayton Bantom and Hyron Burgess - were found guilty of assaulting referee, Llewellyn Loots, at a pre-season tournament in the Eastern Cape town of Bedford on February 28 and were sentenced by an Eastern Province Rugby Union (EPRU) disciplinary committee.
The Fort Beaufort Barbarians Rugby Club was also suspended from all rugby activities for the rest of the year by the committee.
They were found guilty of bringing the EPRU into disrepute by failing to ensure the safety of the match official and by not assisting the union in identifying other players believed to have been a party to the assault.
"I applaud the EPRU for taking a zero tolerance approach to referee abuse," said Hoskins.
"It is totally unacceptable - a message that we have made loud and clear and one that the Unions have confirmed with a number of life bans that have been handed out.
"We have to change the culture where referees seem to be perceived as ‘fair game’ for verbal or even physical assaults.
"Eastern Province has sent a very clear message to their clubs that they will not stand for it and I hope that message is heard across the country."
Hoskins said that the suspension of the players’ club until 2016 was also significant.
"Clubs have a responsibility to ensure that match officials are made welcome and respected in the performance of their duties: that failed to happen in this case and clubs must understand that they are the organisations bets placed to cure this disease," said Hoskins.
"Club leaderships should also set an example of zero tolerance and if they fail to do so, we would urge Unions to act as the EPRU and punish those who fail to live up to their responsibilities."
Hoskins said that physical abuse of referees was regarded as the most serious offence a player or official could commit.
World Rugby’s schedule of recommended sanctions sets the 'entry-level' punishment for physical abuse of a referee at a six-month ban, rising to a life ban.
There can be no sympathy for those who attack referees," Hoskins added.
"There is absolutely no reason why anyone involved should lay a finger on a referee – least of all in a club game.
"If it does not happen in the most pressured environment of Test or Super Rugby, why should it happen on a Saturday afternoon at a club game?"