If the first was an aberration and the second an unfortunate coincidence, a third punch in the space of seven England Tests was always likely to send Martin Johnson up before the beak. The Leicester captain was yesterday hauled over the coals by Roger Uttley and the rest of the England management, who suspended him from this weekend's Twickenham Test with South Africa.
Johnson's penchant for the bare-knuckle stuff cost his countrymen tries against both Argentina and Wales last season and it will cost them once again on Saturday. Given the world-class lock's success against the Springboks during the Lions' tour, Uttley and the rest of the national hierarchy know they have sacrificed a major, almost irreplaceable asset on the twin altars of discipline and diplomacy.
John Hart, the New Zealand coach, was almost incandescent with anger after spotting Johnson's inexcusable punch from behind on Justin Marshall, six minutes into the weekend Test in Manchester - a blow that affected the scrum-half's hearing and raised fears of a broken jaw. While he refused to name Johnson, Hart described the act as one of "outright thuggery from someone who should know better" and indicated his intention to set in motion rugby's complicated and wholly unsatisfactory citing process.
He was saved the trouble yesterday when, after consultation with the All Black camp, England took the bull by the horns. "I have spoken to Martin," said Clive Woodward, the coach. "He has fully accepted responsibility for the incident and he will be making an apology to Justin Marshall. I would like to add my own words of regret over an incident that has no place in English or international rugby."
In welcoming England's prompt action, Hart confirmed he would waive his right to cite Johnson. "I rang the England management on Saturday night to tell them how seriously I viewed the incident," he said, "but I was happy to wait to see what action they took before making any decision on what to do next."
First capped in 1993 and an automatic selection since forcing a place in the Lions' Test side in New Zealand that same summer, Johnson leaves a serious gap in the England tight five. Danny Grewcock, the young Saracens lock, was on the bench on Saturday and may be given his chance, but Woodward will also consider the claims of the more experienced Simon Shaw.
Johnson is only the sixth Englishman to be suspended from an international. In 1975, Mike Burton was not considered for a match with Ireland after making a derisive gesture to committee men during a match at Bristol. Twelve years later, four players - Bath's Richard Hill, Gareth Chilcott and Graham Dawe and the Preston Grasshoppers lock, Wade Dooley - were suspended for their part in a Five Nations brawl with Wales in Cardiff.Reuse content