Bath running empty for vital fixture after Dan Hipkiss and Michael Claassens cited by the RFU
Duo set to face tribunal tonight following incidents during Saturday's defeat to London Irish, while the Exiles bring back Guy Armitage on a season's loan
It never rains, and all that. Heavily criticised after successive Premiership defeats, not least by their own supporters, and about to lose their most influential player to the lure of the French euro, Bath suffered a deeply unwelcome double blow yesterday when the rugby authorities ordered the centre Dan Hipkiss and the scrum-half Michael Claassens to appear before a disciplinary tribunal to answer charges of dangerous and violent conduct. The chances of either man facing Sale in this weekend's important game at the Recreation Ground will be zero if guilty verdicts are recorded.
Both Hipkiss, briefly an England regular who last wore the red rose in 2010, and Claassens, capped eight times by his native South Africa, will appear before the Rugby Football Union's chief disciplinary officer, Judge Jeff Blackett, in Bristol this evening. Hipkiss is accused of tip-tackling the London Irish flanker Jamie Gibson at the Madejski Stadium last Saturday, while Claassens faces an accusation of kicking the Exiles' lock Matt Garvey during the same fixture, which ended in a 29-22 victory for the home side.
The fact that both men are regarded as model professionals and all-round good guys will not save them from suspension should the charges, brought by the citing officer Shaun Gallagher, be proven. Theoretically, kicking carries a minimum ban of a month, although mitigating factors – guilty plea, clean record and so on – are frequently taken into account. Tip-tackling, the offence that generated such controversy at last year's World Cup in New Zealand, has a two-week penalty as its "low-entry point".
This would have been a difficult week for Bath, even without these developments. Olly Barkley, the most influential back at the West Country club for much of the last decade, leaves the club for the top Parisian side Racing Métro after this weekend's game. In addition, the Springboks still have a claim on the outstanding flanker and occasional club captain Francois Louw, who is expected to face Australia in Pretoria this weekend in the penultimate round of Rugby Championship Tests.
Judge Blackett will be a busy man this evening, for a third high-profile case has been added to the list. James Hanks, the Exeter lock, has been cited for making illegal contact with the eyes of the Saracens and former England skipper Steve Borthwick during Sunday's tough match at Sandy Park. If Hanks is found guilty, he can expect a long spell on the sidelines: the least serious case of gouging carries a minimum ban of three months.
Meanwhile, London Irish backed up their first win of the campaign – a victory that came as a considerable relif to them following three 40-point hidings on the bounce – by announcing the temporary return of one of the much talked-about Armitage brothers from Toulon, which has become the family's rugby home from home. Guy Armitage, at 20 the youngest of a sibling trio that also includes the England internationals Delon and Steffon, joined his elders and betters on the Cote d'Azur at the end of last season, but has agreed to retrace his steps in search of some competitive rugby.
"I was very keen for Guy to stay on at the club when I returned to London Irish earlier this year," said the Exiles' rugby director Brian Smith, who has lost the Scotland centre Joe Ansbro to long-term injury and does not expect to see his new signing from rugby league, Setaimata Sa, for at least another couple of months, thanks to visa complications. "I am delighted he's rejoined us for the remainder of the season. His development at Toulon was always going to be in stages and it makes sense in season one for him to come back here and get some first-team game time."
On the Lions front, there was negative news: Warren Gatland, recently confirmed as head coach for next summer's three-Test series against the Wallabies, requires further surgery on the serious heel injury he suffered in a fall at his holiday home in New Zealand earlier this year. Gatland will spend several days in hospital, but is expected to be up and about in time for next month's opening round of Heineken Cup matches, which will signal the start of his player selection process.
Talking of which, the 2014 Heineken Cup final will be played in France – probably at Stade de France in Paris, although beleagured tournament administrators felt unable to name the precise venue yesterday. Unless agreement is reached with English and French clubs on changes to qualification, format and commercial strategy, that match may signal the end of the competition as rugby folk in Europe have come to know and love it. The Premiership contingent, emboldened by a new £152m broadcasting deal with BT Vision, will continue to press for a major revamp at a meeting in Rome in 13 days' time.
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