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RFU reacts with fury to World Rugby ending Mbonambi case without hearing

The Rugby Football Union and the England head coach, Steve Borthwick, have furiously hit out at World Rugby for not allowing the “victim” Tom Curry to “have his voice heard” after clearing South Africa’s Bongi Mbonambi on two counts of racially abusive behaviour towards the England flanker.

Curry is said to share the RFU’s “great disappointment” after World Rugby announced it had found “insufficient evidence” to proceed with disciplinary action against the South Africa hooker. Minutes after World Rugby’s decision was announced, Mbonambi was named in South Africa’s side to face New Zealand in Saturday’s World Cup final and the Springboks subsequently stated he had denied the allegations “from the outset”.

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Curry broke his public silence by reposting the RFU’s raging statement with the caption “this”, and Borthwick confirmed the flanker shares the union’s sentiments. The head coach said: “The RFU expressed great disappointment at World Rugby’s decision and that disappointment is shared by Tom, his teammates, the management team and everyone associated with this team shares that bitter disappointment at World Rugby’s decision.

“Let’s be clear, Tom Curry has done nothing wrong. We have got a victim of a situation who has not been able to have his voice heard. That’s where the disappointment really comes in. Somebody has said something to Tom Curry, Tom’s reported it, he’s been in a situation where World Rugby made a decision not to allow the opportunity for the victim’s voice to be heard.”

Curry can be clearly heard asking the referee Ben O’Keeffe during Saturday’s semi-final defeat by the Springboks: “Sir, if their hooker calls me a white cunt what do I do?” On Thursday, the RFU alleged that Curry suffered “the same abuse by the same player” during South Africa’s victory over England in November 2022.

England’s Tom Curry speaks to Ben O’Keeffe after the incident that led to his allegationEngland’s Tom Curry speaks to Ben O’Keeffe after the incident that led to his allegation. Photograph: Mike Egerton/PA

World Rugby has cleared Mbonambi on both counts on the basis that having reviewed all available audio and video footage as well as taking submissions from both teams, the investigation concluded that there was insufficient evidence to proceed. World Rugby insisted Curry had acted “in good faith” and that there was no suggestion the allegations were “deliberately false or malicious”.

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The RFU responded by questioning why World Rugby did not give Curry the chance to present evidence to an independent panel and expressed “deep disappointment”. The union said in a statement: “The RFU fully supports Tom Curry in raising the racially abusive behaviour he experienced whilst playing for England against South Africa. The RFU is deeply disappointed by the decision taken by World Rugby. The decision not to put the evidence before an independent disciplinary panel has denied the disciplinary process the opportunity to hear Tom Curry’s voice and to independently assess his account of these serious events, together with the other available evidence.”

South Africa Rugby responded to World Rugby’s decision with its own statement while their director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus, changed his banner picture on X, formerly Twitter, to an image of Mbonambi. SA Rugby’s statement read: “Any form of racism is abhorrent to SA Rugby and the Springbok team whose purpose is to do everything in its power to assist in uniting our diverse and multicultural nation. Bongi Mbonambi is an experienced, respected and decorated Test player and, needless to say, denied the allegations from the outset. SA Rugby has absolute faith in the honesty and integrity of Bongi.”

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England again strongly condemned the online threats and abuse directed at Curry and his family – described by Maro Itoje as “disgraceful”, while World Rugby revealed Mbonambi has also been targeted. “Tom has been tremendous,” said Itoje. “He’s been courageous to do what he’s done in the manner he’s done it, through proper channels, conducting himself in the manner he should be proud of. Definitely as teammates, we are proud of him. To do that isn’t easy. To make a statement like that isn’t easy. To call out stuff like that isn’t easy. As you’ve seen this week, when you do something courageous like that, you put yourself out there. He’s been absolutely fantastic in that regard.

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“In terms of how we’ve tried to support him, we’ve just tried to be there for him in any way he needs. If he needs to talk about anything, we are always there for him. But he’s a strong man, he has a strong personality, a strong will, and he’s been great throughout the week.”

The South Africa captain, Siya Kolisi, revealed he had contacted Curry in the wake of his treatment. “I have spoken to him, I sent him a message. He is someone I respect,” Kolisi said. “We can take it as players, when it comes to you it’s fine, but when families are involved it’s different. I have let him know we are supporting him, we are thinking of him.”

The RFU’s statement added: “In their continued full support of Tom, the RFU together with the England squad, condemn the disgusting abuse he and his family has received on social media as a result of his having had the courage to put unacceptable behaviour that has no place in society or on the rugby field, in the public eye. Abuse of any kind is not acceptable and goes against the core values of rugby. It is important that it is safe and acceptable for everyone involved in rugby union to raise concerns, and the RFU continue to encourage everyone to report any unacceptable behaviour in the game.”

It is also understood that England are furious with a video that emerged on Wednesday of South Africa players, including Mbonambi, and coaches at a training session. The Afrikaans phrase “Watter kant?”, which translates as “Which side?”, can be heard and the video has been construed as South Africa making light of the situation. It has been speculated that during the semi-final Mbonambi might have used a similar Afrikaans phrase, “wit kant”, meaning “white side”, a reference to England’s shirts.