Best to face RFU inquiry for gouging

Disciplinary body to rule on latest bad blood between Wasps and Northampton
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The Independent Online

The Rugby Football Union's disciplinary wing, already in the headlines after an unprecedented public lambasting of the referee Martin Fox earlier this week, must deal with another high-profile case next Tuesday when Neil Best, who played for Ireland in last year's World Cup before leaving his native Ulster for a spell with Northampton, stands accused of "illegally making contact with the eye or eye area" of the Wasps forward James Haskell during last weekend's Premiership match at Franklin's Gardens. In other words, he is charged with gouging. And there is history between the two clubs on the gouging front.

Two seasons ago, another Northampton forward, Dylan Hartley, received a six-month ban for putting his hooker's fingers too near the eyes of a couple of Wasps players, one of whom happened to be Haskell – a heavy punishment that demolished the New Zealand-born player's hopes of breaking into the England squad for the global tournament in France. Even if Best, reported to the RFU by the citing officer Ken Pattinson following a review of the match tape, walks free without a stain on his honour, the case is something the Midlanders could well do without.

It has been an interesting couple of weeks for Haskell, to say the least. After Wasps' home defeat by Worcester in the second round of Premiership fixtures, he was accused of butting the lock Greg Rawlinson during a lively fracas towards the end of the game. This week, he had the charge downgraded to one of dangerous play and was banned for one match – that match being tonight's difficult visit to Leicester. The RFU's chief disciplinary officer, Judge Jeff Blackett, made mincemeat of Fox in his published judgement for failing to take action over two pieces of foul play that led to Haskell's unfortunate intervention.

With Tom Rees returning to the open-side flank alongside Joe Worsley and John Hart, the off-colour champions will field a decent enough back row at Welford Road, even in Haskell's absence. There are serious issues elsewhere, though. Injuries to Raphael Ibanez and Joe Ward mean the hooking resources are at rock bottom, hence the promotions of Rob Webber to the starting position and Damian Varley, on loan from Munster, to the bench. Josh Lewsey, shifted to the left wing halfway through the Northampton game, stays there. Tom Voyce wears the No 15 shirt.

Bristol, widely tipped as potential strugglers before the start of the season and living down to predictions, have recalled some gnarled forwards for this evening's important trip to Newcastle, who also attracted the interest of the doom-mongers during the run-up to the campaign. Roy Winters and Matt Salter will start, while English rugby's acknowledged master of front-row eloquence, Mark Regan, reappears on the bench three months shy of his 36th birthday. Defeat for the West Countrymen in Jonny Wilkinson land will not be the end of the world, for the winter conditions they love are still to come, but it will do nothing for their fragile confidence.

Neither Sale nor Gloucester are short in that department at the moment, and their meeting at Edgeley Park could be the match of the season to date. Ryan Lamb is back at outside-half and will forge an intriguing midfield relationship with Olly Barkley. Sale, meanwhile, have the brilliant Argentine flanker Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe back as captain.

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Length, in months, of ban received by Dylan Hartley, also of Northampton, in 2006 for an eye-gouging incident.

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