Protection racket goes for a Burton

Rugby Union: World Cup Diary
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The Independent Online
THE New Zealand management's increasing paranoia over the approaches being made by rugby league to Jonah Lomu have reached the stage where they have thrown a protective cordon around their star winger and have prevented any journalist speaking to him without the most rigorous vetting.

It was therefore with some consternation last week that they spotted Lomu in earnest conversation with a grey-suited man wearing dark glasses who had apparently slipped through the net. "Are you a journalist?" asked a member of the management team. "No, I'm not," came the reply. "Just a friend." Lomu nodded enthusiastically in agreement and the interrogator departed, his suspicions allayed. So who was this mystery man? None other than Mike Burton, who has been hired by rugby league clubs to recruit union's most promising players.

EIGHT days after the Springboks and Canadians squared up in what has become known as the "Battle of Boet", South African airports are still handing out a promotional leaflet which has a large picture of the Springbok captain Francois Pienaar under which is a headline that reads: "Please guys, play by the rules. We do!"

In the aftermath of last week's punch-up, it has been difficult to keep up with the comings and goings at the Springbok camp. On Monday night, Chester Williams was called up. On Tuesday morning, Pieter Hendriks (cited, suspended) and Williams (injured, mended) held a long, happy handshake for the cameras. On Tuesday evening, James Dalton (dismissed, suspended, appealed, suspended) broke down in tears as he waved his World Cup goodbye. Meanwhile, the rest of the team declared that the suspensions were unfair and that they would win the tournament for their disgraced team-mates.

James Small, the winger, has shed his bad-boy image, but his family have long memories. Last Sunday morning, a fax from them arrived at the Springboks' hotel for Dalton: "If any family knows what you and your family are going through, we do. Please know that you have our unwavering support in your well-founded appeal against your totally unfair suspension. Hold your head up high."

TO ROUND off a light training session, the England team last week settled down to a spot of five-a-side football. The star players were, not surprisingly, the three-quarters, though Brian Moore showed some lovely close touches around the goal and Les Cusworth was a real threat in the air despite well-meant advice from on and off the pitch that he was losing more hair for every header he made.

The biggest cheer, however, was for a golden moment when Victor Ubogu robbed Will Carling of the ball and sprinted the length of the pitch to score.

WORLD Cup misdemeanours are not easily forgotten, as Craig Joiner and Bryan Redpath discovered last week. A fortnight previously, they had overslept on the morning of the players' welcome lunch in Cape Town and missed the team bus to the airport. On Monday, then, they reported for the punishment at 7.15am, had to start the day with six hearty "cock-a-doodle-doos" and then swim three lengths of the hotel pool.

IF player of the tournament was judged on phone calls received, then Jonah Lomu would be the man. In the first week of the tournament, there were 220 calls for him, 84 in one day and not all at social hours. "I class myself as a normal person who is asleep at four in the morning," said the God-fearing winger. Gavin Hastings, meanwhile, is something of a hit with the media - by Wednesday he had given 33 one-to-one interviews - but here Lomu is again the main attraction. The All Black camp is receiving so many interview requests that they have made a video film which they show to interested parties.

A FAMILIAR face in press boxes here has been Gary Bailey, the ex-Manchester United goalkeeper. Bailey has been a TV sports presenter in his native South Africa for seven years, but is amazed by what he has seen over the last two weeks. "It's crazy," he said. "The commitment is incredible. These guys risk life and limb and they are getting just a few bob on the side. Really, I wouldn't do it, it's not worth it."

Contributions by Chris Rea and Owen Slot