Rugby Union: Sturnham plays but ban looms

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THE RECREATION Ground faithful will probably start doubting the evidence of their own eyesight when they see Ben Sturnham trot out with his new Bath club-mates to face the not inconsiderable threat of London Irish in the pick of tomorrow's Allied Dunbar Premiership matches. The former Saracen was sent off for stamping during last Saturday's victory over Bedford and the common assumption on the terraces was that he could kiss the next couple of months goodbye.

But disciplinary procedures have changed, along with just about everything else in the 15-man game. These days, a player is innocent until proven guilty, a veritable sea change in rugby jurisprudence, and Sturnham is free to keep playing until a Twickenham tribunal decides otherwise.

Bath might have meted out their own summary justice by immediately banning their versatile back-five recruit. However, the West Countrymen are none too impressed by the quality of evidence against him. "The video footage is unclear and we are still awaiting the referee's report," the coach, Andy Robinson, said. "I do not condone foul play, but I don't think anyone saw the incident apart from the touch judge who made the call. I think that in all the circumstances, it's better to wait for the inquiry."

Of course, Robinson's decision to select Sturnham had nothing whatsoever to do with his sudden shortage of second-row options. Nigel Redman's incomplete recovery from a nose operation and Dan Lyle's long-term injury meant there were no other obvious candidates to partner Martin Haag in the engine room this weekend.

Indeed, Bath suffered more bad news on the fitness front yesterday; Richard Bryan, the 21-year-old flanker who produced some sterling back-row performances to help the club through a personnel crisis last season, will need surgery after breaking his jaw during a second-string match with Richmond on Tuesday. Remarkably, Bryan played on for half an hour before giving in to the pain.

Rob Fisher, the vice-chairman of the International Rugby Board, has warned England and the other home unions that New Zealand, South Africa and Australia will not accept below-par tour parties in future. "If the situation occurs again, we will look at other options, like Western Samoa or Argentina," he said.