First an apology, and now Johnson faces his acid test

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The Independent Online

The eve of a win-or-bust World Cup game is not the ideal moment for an outpouring of contrition, especially when the man saying sorry is Martin Johnson, the very embodiment of English rugby's "no backward step" spirit. Unhappily for the manager, there were no choices available to him yesterday. While the Scots were building nicely towards this morning's decisive pool game at Eden Park – how they cherish their underdog status on these occasions – Johnson was squirming on the end of a whole series of impertinent questions about the latest red-rose brush with the disciplinary classes.

Less than 24 hours after he, in private consultation with some of the Rugby Football Union's top brass, banned the kicking coach Dave Alred and the fitness specialist Paul Stridgeon from taking an active part in today's game – the two men are carrying the can for England's sharp practice with the balls against Romania – Johnson made his apologies in public.

"What happened was wrong and we regret it," he said. "I don't suspend people lightly and this is a blow for the guys concerned, but you have to be prepared for what comes at you in a World Cup. They acted in the heat of a Test and they've paid for it."

At no point did Johnson seek to deny that iconic Jonny Wilkinson had been implicated in those "ball manipulation" events of last weekend. It was Wilkinson who twice used the wrong ball – that is to say, a ball different from the one with which a try had been scored – for his conversion attempt, in contravention of rugby law. Alred, his mentor, was on the touchline while all this was going on, while Stridgeon was trying to locate the specific numbered ball of the outside-half's choice. These tactics were abandoned at half-time when referee Romain Poite made his objections.

"We should have asked the referee before changing the ball but we didn't," Johnson confessed. "The referee told us to stop, which we did." Then, on being asked about Wilkinson's involvement, he added, rather cryptically: "What other people's take on this might be, I'm not sure. You can speculate all you want about it. There are lots of might-have-beens in World Cups." For the beaten side today, that is a sad truth.

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