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The East Palo Alto Bulldogs have been reinstated as an active club in the Northern California DI league after a successful appeal of their banning to USA Rugby, but will not be able to participate in any playoffs until the 2015/2016 season.

EPA entered the season under probation after an incident in a playoff game last season at Santa Monica, when Liuapeatau Tameifuna punched the referee. Tameifuna was banned from rugby for life, and the Bulldogs club put on probation whereby, if they demonstrated an inability to control the discipline of their club, they would be banned from the playoffs for two years.

This season, the Bulldogs received two red cards for stamping - one in December and one in January - the second stamping produced a nasty wound on the player in question.

The Northern California disciplinary committee enacted sanctions on the Bulldogs on January 15, banning them from the playoffs for two years. Then, on January 26, the Northern California RFU Executive Committee imposed additional sanctions, banning the club and all of its players from rugby for two years.

As stated to RUGBYMag.com on January 31 by NCRFU president John Compaglia, "The club was noticed at that the time of the Disciplinary Committee action, that further transgressions would result in additional sanctions ... The severity of this second red card ... and injury to the San Francisco Golden Gate player, was determined serious enough to be a material violation of the EPA Bulldogs RFC two year probation and enforcement of additional sanctions by the Union."

However, the term "additional sanctions" actually meant two different things. The first reference was to an agreed-upon penalty should the club slip up again, to wit, no playoffs for two years. The second reference to "additional sanctions" referee to the NCRFU adding on an extra penalty - in essence, additional additional sanctions.

By conflating those two, Compaglia misrepresented how the penalty was enacted.

The additional sanction was appealed by the Bulldogs, who requested that Sacramento Blackhawks Coach Ben Parker, who had had his own run-ins with NCRFU decision-making (and thus had plenty of research at his disposal) to represent them.

Today, USA Rugby vacated the second ban, reverting the decision back to a playoff ban only. In making the decision, the USA Rugby Appellate Panel said its decision was based on the lack of due process in the NCRFU Exec Committee decision. There was no hearing, or explanation of the additional sanction.

To quote from the USA Rugby decision:
"By contrast with the imposition of the probationary sanction, NorCal has given us no evidence that it afforded the Bulldogs notice of a proposed banning or an opportunity to be heard on the matter.  As a consequence it is clear to the panel that the NorCal decision was procedurally deficient and must be overturned."

USA Rugby's Ed Todd said the panel did not examine the merits of the punishment on the EPA Bulldogs, and stressed that they support efforts to end foul and dirty play, but overturned the NCRFU Executive Committee because of how it arrived at the decision.

The NCRFU has appealed USA Rugby's new decision, but at the same time, USA Rugby has informed the NCRFU that the union has to abide its own bylaws and follow due process.

Here's the concluding paragraph:
Accordingly the panel directs: a) That the NorCal DC decision to suspend the EPA Bulldogs from the playoffs is affirmed and be enforced; and b) that the NorCal EB decision to ban the club and players from all competition is vacated and that NorCal is directed to immediately reinstate the Bulldogs and its players to membership in the Union.  This panel will retain jurisdiction over the matter and all related appeals to insure that further actions involving the bulldogs and NorCal are handled in a consistent manner that comports with procedural requirements.

So at issue is whether a union or league's leadership group can act in a maverick style, following rules of procedure when it wants to, and ignoring them at other times. USA Rugby, is appears, wants both the EPA Bulldogs and the NCRFU to follow the rules.

This afternoon, NCRFU Disciplinary Committee Chair Harry Batten issued a warning to the Bulldogs that any infraction, on or off the field, could result in the club and its players being kicked out of the league again - this notice did not seem to be the result of any official hearing or executive meeting.

As it is, banning a club is a complicated process. The NCRFU Exec Committee decision banned all of the players on the club from playing any rugby anywhere, for any club, for two years. This would include USA 7s player Jack Halalilo, and members of the USA U20 team.

Todd told RUGBYMag.com that inflicting a long-term ban on all players associated with a club that behaves badly (and it's worth noting that several other clubs in Northern California have been hit with multiple red cards without similar sanction) appeared unduly harsh. It appears such a ban would struggle to stand.