Rugby Union: Popplewell's punch sullies thriller

Bedford 34 Newcastle 28:
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The Independent Online
Bedford 34 Newcastle 28

There is a fine line between a competitive edge and edgy, gratuitous violence. Newcastle's Nick Popplewell crossed that narrow divide on Saturday when he punched Scot Murray, an incident which marred an otherwise thrilling Second Division match crammed with high quality passages of play by both sides. The fact that Murray suffered no permanent damage to his eye is welcome news, but immaterial as far as any punishment goes.

All Popplewell received from the referee Steve Lander (on the advice of the touch judge) was a yellow card, but Newcastle will certainly come under pressure from Bedford to discipline the Ireland prop. Frank Warren, the Bedford chairman said: "We will expect Newcastle to look at the video - and I think the RFU should look at it as well - and do something about it."

It is unlikely that Twickenham will enter the debate at this stage. Tony Hallett, the Rugby Football Union secretary, who is believed to have been contacted by Bedford's director of rugby, Geoff Cooke, said yesterday: "The RFU would prefer for the matter to be dealt with by the club. Newcastle could impose a series of penalties on Popplewell and that would be the best solution in my view."

There was also some questionable shenanigans culminating in Tony Underwood receiving a fractured jaw after he was tackled by Paul Hewitt, an injury which may yet force him off the Lions tour of South Africa. According to medical experts Underwood will need at least five or even six weeks to recover; the Lions party leaves on 17 May - six weeks hence.

Although Underwood, like Murray, said he would not be taking matters further, he was not happy about how he came to suffer the injury.

The England wing, who broke his jaw in 1989, muttered darkly on his return from hospital where he learned an operation was not necessary: "There was a lot said on the pitch before and after the game. I don't want to comment on it. I know what went on on the pitch, but I'm just going to leave it at that."

Underwood was not as bothered about the possibility of missing out on the Lions as he was at being forced to miss Newcastle's demanding run- in during their bid for promotion. "We've got five big games coming up and this defeat is a huge setback," he said. "I should be OK for 17 May, but I'm a bit more concerned about missing Newcastle's remaining league games."

Fran Cotton, the British Isles tour manager, said yesterday that a meeting would be held on the weekend of 19 to 20 April at which the wounded Lions' chances of recovery would be assessed and stand-by players would be picked as and where necessary. As well as Underwood's setback, there were two other injuries on Saturday to worry the Lions. Northampton's Tim Rodber sustained a whiplash injury and Bristol's Jeremy Davidson suffered a groin strain.

It was sad that a couple of ugly incidents should have scarred what was a beautiful game. Bedford, brilliantly led by their captain and coach, Paul Turner, and inspired by Junior Paramore and Rudi Straeuli in an excellent pack, were great value for money. They thrilled a 6,500 crowd with some lovely touches and would be worthy additions to next year's First Division. So, too, would Newcastle.

Bedford: Tries Hewitt, Edwards, Whetstone, Boyd, Offiah; Conversions Rayer 3; Penalty Rayer. Newcastle: Tries Tait, Lam, Graham; Conversions Andrew 2; Penalties Andrew 3.

Bedford: M Rayer; P Hewitt, B Whetstone, S McCurry, M Offiah; P Turner (capt), D Edwards; C Boyd, P Simmonds (N McCarthy, 78), J Probyn, S Murray (M Deans, 49), N Hadley, R Winters, R Straeuli, J Paramore.

Newcastle: T Stimpson; J Bentley, A Tait, V Tuigamala, T Underwood (G Childs, 53); R Andrew, G Armstrong; N Popplewell, R Nesdale (capt), G Graham, G Archer, D Weir, S O'Neill (H Vyvyan, 30-40), P Lam, R Arnold.

Referee: S Lander (Liverpool).