JAMES McLaren, the Stirling County centre suspended for 20 weeks for kicking Melrose fly-half Craig Chalmers on the head, has had his sentence increased by six weeks after a Murrayfield disciplinary appeal hearing.

In an unprecedented move last night, the Scottish Rugby Union announced that McLaren's appeal against the original sentence had been dismissed - and that he would now be banned until May 31.

The union also announced that, in future, the punishment for kicking an opponent on the head would be a mandatory minimum ban of 26 weeks.

SRU discipline secretary Iain Goodall declared: ``We want to emphasise that foul play has no place in rugby union. The Appeals Committee has determined that any player who kicks another in the head will receive a minimum suspension of 26 weeks for a first offence, expect in exceptional circumstances.''

McLaren, 22, who returned to his native Stirling this season from Australia, where he had been playing rugby league with Canberra Raiders, had hoped to further his rugby career in Scotland.

He was cited by Melrose after the incident during the Premiership tussle at Bridgehaugh on November 16, when Chalmers was left groggy after a ruck. At the first disciplinary hearing McLaren was found guilty and banned until mid-April.

The initial appeal was heard before Christmas. A decision was adjourned until Monday, when the tribunal reconvened, and Chalmers was called to give evidence.

Stirling County had claimed that slow-motion video evidence proved that while Chalmers had, indeed, been kicked, the act had not been deliberate.

McLaren lives in a remote cottage, without telephone, near Stirling and last night County team manager Ralph McNaught said he did not even know if the player had been informed of the increased sentence.

``James will be devastated. I'm angry, too, that the SRU seem to have released this to the media before letting the club know. James was keen to advance his rugby career in Scotland. This sentence has put a halt on that for the time being,'' said McNaught.