RUGBY UNION: Jones admits that he has a `problem'

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IT SOUNDED for all the world like one of Basil Fawlty's grovelling attempts to ingratiate himself with a domineering guest, but when Mark Jones, the former Wales No 8, put pen to paper yesterday, it was not for comic effect.

"I would sincerely like to apologise for a thoughtless, stupid and violent act," he wrote in a letter to Ian Gough, referring to the punch that left Pontypridd's gifted young second-row forward requiring minor surgery on an eye socket.

Jones, whose behavioural record has little to recommend it, landed a haymaker on his fellow national squad member during Ebbw Vale's victory over Ponty last Saturday. He was sent off by Derek Bevan, the leading international referee, and will face a Welsh Rugby Union disciplinary panel next week. Gough, meanwhile, was left to contemplate three weeks of rest and recuperation following his discharge from East Glamorgan Hospital.

As the pressure grew on the WRU to come down on one of their more regular miscreants with a heavy hand and Gough's solicitors confirmed the possibility of legal action, Jones sought solace in correspondence. "I am very disappointed in myself and I feel very sorry for you, a young guy I respect as a rugby player and like as a person," he told Gough in his letter, adding: "I realise now that I have a problem that I need to correct."

Banned for 28 days in 1996 following a fight with Stuart Evans, the Swansea prop, Jones missed the start of this season after being cited by Llanelli for thumping Iwan Jones, the Scarlets' flanker, during the Welsh Cup final last May.

David Pickering, the national team manager, tried to throw the best light on a nasty affair. "Mark is an asset to our squad in that he has a hard mental approach, although there has to be a distinction between hard and dirty play," he said - but a lengthy suspension, ruling the former rugby league professional out of this autumn's Tests with South Africa and Argentina, is on the cards.

He will not be alone in missing the pre-Christmas international programme: three French props of exceptional quality - Christian Califano, of Toulouse, Cedric Soulette, of Beziers and Agen's explosive Didier Casadei - are all injured and giving serious cause for concern. Califano, perhaps the finest front-row forward in the world, is the major worry. Currently sidelined with a back condition, he is contemplating surgery that would almost certainly rule him out of the entire northern hemisphere campaign.

Meanwhile, Irish rugby was embroiled in a furore over allegations by Neil Francis, the former Test lock turned newspaper columnist, of habitual steroid misuse among players. Francis made his claims in an article in the Sunday Tribune but has offered no substantiation. Noel Murphy, the president of the Irish Rugby Football Union, was incandescent.

"We condemn the use of all performance-enhancing drugs substances and are seen to be proactive in this regard," he said. "We are at the forefront in supporting the Irish Sports Council's plans to introduce a national testing programme in the Republic and have long been associated with the UK Sports Council in assisting their testing." Further unsubstantiated reports that two internationals from the British Isles tested positive for steroid abuse last season were denied by all four home unions yesterday.

nWill Carling's extraordinary attempt to earn himself a nice little retirement nest egg by organising his own testimonial match at Wembley next month was officially declared dead in the water by Mike Burton, his promoter. Recent publicity over the former England captain's love life was, apparently, the final nail in the coffin. The testimonial could have earned him as much as pounds 500,000.