Rugby Union: Sale Kiwis face probe

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The Independent Online
Sharp practice or the politics of envy? Sale's startling progress towards a first Pilkington Cup final and a place in next season's Heineken Cup is about to be overshadowed by the latest development in a year-long wrangle over the Cheshire club's mightily effective All Black pairing of John Mitchell, the player-coach, and Simon Mannix, the goal-kicking outside- half.

English Rugby Partnership, the management board set up to control domestic club competitions, is so deeply concerned at the legality or otherwise of the two New Zealanders' presence in the Sale side that they have asked the Rugby Football Union to investigate. Furthermore, ERP is planning to tighten next season's Courage League registration regulations to force all non-EU players to obtain work permits.

Unable to play here as a professional, Mannix is turning out for Sale as an amateur while earning his corn by working as a marketing executive. Mitchell's permit covers his coaching role but, according to some rival clubs, he is pushing his luck too far by playing as well. Sale deny that charge.

To further complicate matters, the Overseas Labour Service is now involved and the Home Office is primed to act on its findings. If the Whitehall mandarins decide that Mannix's amateur status is no more than a convenient smokescreen, the issue may have to be sorted out in court rather than in one of the committee rooms at Twickenham.

"As far as we're concerned, we're watertight on this," said Howard Thomas, the Sale chief executive, yesterday. "Both players have perfectly valid visas covering their presence here and both have been properly registered under the League regulations currently in place. We've taken the best advice from counsel and we have no knowledge of any reason why John should not play as well as coach or why Simon should not play as an amateur if he so wishes. If the authorities decide there is no place for an amateur, I would find that decision obscene. What next? Will they stop people playing bridge at weekends?''

Newcastle, meanwhile, will take account of video evidence before deciding whether to discipline Nick Popplewell, their Irish prop, for punching Scott Murray during the weekend match at Bedford. They will also be looking at the incident in which their wing, Tony Underwood, suffered a broken jaw - the result of a tackle from Paul Hewitt.

In Wales, protests over plans to establish an eight-team premiership continued yesterday. Cross Keys, who, like Llandovery, have had their promotion ambitions dashed by the move, are considering boycotting the rest of the current programme despite proposed financial compensation.

The Scottish Rugby Union has introduced its a registration scheme, which aims to provide clubs some protection from larger predators whose annual poaching of young talent is a perennial cause of acrimony. Players wishing to change clubs will now have to serve an eight-week waiting period before playing for a new club.