Rugby World Cup: Tournaire is cited for `biting' Kiwi captain

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The Independent Online
JUST WHEN you thought the gin-and-tonic brigade had done the decent thing and withdrawn from the World Cup frontline, they reappeared with a vengeance yesterday by citing Franck Tournaire, the tight-head prop from Toulouse, for alleged biting during last weekend's semi-final classic between France and New Zealand. Tournaire was formally accused of applying his teeth to the head of Taine Randell, the All Black captain, at a highly combustible ruck shortly before the interval and was ordered to appear before a disciplinary panel in Cardiff this morning. A guilty verdict would inevitably rule him out of Saturday's final against Australia and, quite possibly, land him with a one-year ban.

When the rugby public last clapped eyes on the 26-year-old scrummager he was cradling his young daughter and shedding tears of joy in the middle of the Twickenham pitch as the dust settled on perhaps the greatest Test in living memory. He will be shedding tears of a different kind if the panel, chaired by Mr Neil Bidder QC, finds against him today, as will the French selectors, who have already lost their world-class loose head, Christian Califano. Tournaire's club-mate was banned for seven weeks for butting Joeli Veitayaki during the France-Fiji pool match just over a fortnight ago.

Pierre Villepreux, one of the French coaches, launched an immediate defence of Tournaire. "We've looked at the recording and are confident of a not guilty verdict," he said. "The New Zealand player concerned was unmarked." That stance was strengthened by Randell himself. "I know they're saying it was me who was bitten, but I honestly can't remember anything like that happening," he said last night. "There was a lot of shouting at that ruck, most of it in French, but that's about as much as I recall."

Pieter de Villiers, reared in South Africa but a bona fide member of Les Bleus through long residency in France, would be the obvious replacement for Tournaire, although the Tricolore hierarchy might choose to re-shuffle their front row to accommodate De Villiers' colleague at Stade Francais, the brilliant Sylvain Marconnet. But the French will be hoping that the panel delivers an acquittal, for Tournaire is one of the most accomplished tight-heads in the world game and certainly the stand-out No 3 in this tournament.

Bizarrely, yesterday's disciplinary crisis was instigated by a television team from New Zealand rather than by the commissioner appointed to oversee Sunday's match, the South African Piet Niemann. A journalist contacted Tim Gresson, one of New Zealand's representatives on the International Board and the chairman of the World Cup refereeing operation, and was told that no action been taken against Tournaire. He then informed Gresson that "graphic footage" existed, and the ensuing investigation culminated in the citing.

John Hart, the beleaguered All Black coach, then threw his hat in the disciplinary ring by accusing the French of widespread skulduggery during the semi-final. "There is a suggestion in our camp that a player was bitten," he said. "If that's the case, it's a pretty appalling thing. I declined to say anything after the game because I didn't want to detract from a fine French performance, but reports from my team suggest that things happened that have no place on a rugby field."

Hart was much more reticent on the subject of his own future. "I know the debate is raging back home and I know people are calling for my head, but I'm not prepared to give them my head at the moment," he said. "My responsibility is to get a pretty shattered All Black side ready to face South Africa in the play-off."

New Zealand make five changes, one of them positional, for tomorrow's third-place decider in Cardiff. Justin Marshall returns at scrum-half for the injured Byron Kelleher, Royce Willis replaces Robin Brooke in the second row and there is a re-vamped front row of Craig Dowd, Mark Hammett and Kees Meeuws. The Springboks have new wings in Stefan Terblanche and Breyton Paulse, while Andre Vos comes in at No 8 for the injured and out-of-sorts Bobby Skinstad. As expected, Jannie de Beer has voluntarily vacated the outside-half berth to allow Henry Honiball a last hurrah on the international stage.

Unsurprisingly, the Wallabies intend to tackle Saturday's showpiece climax with the starting XV that did for South Africa four days ago. The only tinkering is on the bench, where the experienced Dan Crowley replaces Rod Moore. The French, meanwhile, have three injury worries: the full- back Xavier Garbajosa (ankle) and the two loose forwards, Marc Lievremont (thigh) and Christophe Juillet (knee), are the men concerned.

AUSTRALIA (v France, World Cup final, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Saturday): M Burke (New South Wales); B Tune (Queensland), D Herbert (Queensland), T Horan (Queensland), J Roff (ACT); S Larkham (ACT), G Gregan (ACT); R Harry (NSW), M Foley (Queensland), A Blades (NSW), D Giffin (ACT), J Eales (Queensland, capt), M Cockbain (Queensland), D Wilson (Queensland), T Kefu (Queensland). Replacements: J Little (Queensland), N Grey (NSW), C Whitaker (NSW), O Finegan (ACT), M Connors (Queensland), D Crowley (Queensland), J Paul (ACT).