Referee censured as Haskell let off

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The Independent Online

James Haskell, the England flanker expected to be a central component of the national team in the run-up to the next World Cup in 2011, will miss Wasps' difficult Premiership fixture at Leicester on Friday night after picking up a one-match suspension for dangerous play during his club's unexpected defeat by Worcester 10 days ago. There were those who expected him to be banned for rather longer – anything up to six weeks, in fact – but at one of the more remarkable Rugby Football Union hearings in recent memory, he escaped with the proverbial slap on the wrist.

Instead of throwing the book at Haskell for an alleged offence of butting, the panel accepted the player's claim that his head-to-head contact with the Worcester lock Greg Rawlinson was unintentional, downgraded the charge and turned their fire on the referee, Martin Fox of Leicestershire, instead. Fox, a part-time official, earns his living as a director of a property investment company. One way or another, things are difficult for him right now.

Haskell was reported after the event by a citing officer, but on viewing the video evidence, the RFU's chief disciplinary officer, Judge Jeff Blackett, noted that a number of offences had been committed before the flanker's ill-advised intervention – an act born, according to Haskell, of exasperation at the referee's refusal to act and the desire to protect a colleague. The footage showed that the Worcester forward Tom Wood started the fun and games by launching himself into a ruck and hitting Phil Vickery with a swinging arm. Vickery then grabbed Rawlinson by the scrum cap and found himself on the wrong end of a five-punch combination as a result.

"The referee was very close to the incident and must have had a clear view of what occurred, yet he took no, or insufficient, disciplinary action," said Judge Blackett in a blunt judgement. "Having not penalised Wood, the referee... then stood by as Rawlinson punched Vickery five times in and around the head.

"Had the referee taken action against Wood initially, none of the rest... would have followed. It is almost beyond comprehension that he then decided to penalise Vickery for the least of all the acts of foul play."

Blackett added that both Wood and Rawlinson should have been cited along with Haskell. The failure meant "the panel were placed in the invidious position of taking disciplinary action against one person when other similar acts of foul play in the same incident will remain unpunished because the time limit for citing has passed". Like all members of the judiciary, he does not like invidious positions one little bit.

A second member of the Wasps pack, the lock Richard Birkett, appeared before the same panel, and picked up a reprimand for stamping on the Worcester back-rower Netani Talei during the match at Adams Park. Birkett is therefore available for the Leicester visit – an important one for Wasps, who have lost all three of their Premiership matches to date – but with Simon Shaw available again, he is likely to start on the bench.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Rugby Union has made a formal complaint to the International Rugby Board over the refusal of a number of England's top-flight clubs to release players for a Test squad training session in Edinburgh two days ago.

Premier Rugby, the clubs' umbrella organisation, insisted that under current regulations, there was under no obligation to make personnel available outside agreed Test windows.

"We hope common sense will prevail, but it's a delicate situation," admitted a board spokesman.

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