Confusion as clubs launch Johnson appeal

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The Independent Online

Clive Woodward will omit the banned England captain, Martin Johnson, from his thinking as he plots his strategy for next weekend's important Six Nations trip to France, but the manager's preparations could yet be complicated by an appeal that would free his most influential forward to play in Paris.

Johnson and his advisers will decide on Monday whether to challenge a three-week suspension imposed on the Leicester lock for punching the Saracens hooker Robbie Russell on 9 February, and if they proceed, Woodward will be sorely tempted to ignore rugby's moral majority and run his skipper against the Tricolores.

One appeal has already been lodged. Premier Rugby Partnership, the joint venture between the élite professional clubs and the players' union, objects to the basis upon which Thursday night's hearing was held and will question the RFU disciplinary panel's right of jurisdiction, on the grounds that the incident was dealt with by the referee, Dave Pearson, who yellow-carded both Johnson and Russell following the fracas.

"Whilst physicality is an integral part of the sport, violence is never acceptable and we are not condoning Martin's actions," said Howard Thomas, the chief executive of Premier Rugby. "However, the decision should remain with the referee, and the only exceptional circumstance in this instance was that it involved the England captain, resulting in a media furore. PRP feels obliged to intervene because this sets a precedent that affects the whole of the management of professional rugby in England."

This independent appeal does not mean Johnson is available for Paris. But if Johnson and Leicester also decide to contest the judgement, the ban would be lifted until the date of the new hearing. As union officers are unlikely to list any appeal for the week of an international match – they tend to clear the decks when a long weekend in Paris beckons – Johnson, unavailable to Woodward at the moment, could be available by Monday.

The situation is now hopelessly confused. Thursday's hearing, chaired by Richard Smith QC, lasted almost eight hours, more than half of which was lost in a fog of rugby jurisprudence as Johnson's quartet of lawyers, led by the senior counsel Bhita Bhalla, questioned the tribunal's right to hear the case at all. Although their arguments were rejected, they left the hearing unimpressed by what they had heard and spoiling for a fresh fight.

Johnson received credit from the panel for pleading guilty to punching Russell, who required six stitches in a cut under his left eye. In truth, he could not have done much else in light of footage that showed the incident from a dozen different angles. The panel described the assault as "gratuitous foul play" worthy of a red card, rather than the yellow flourished by referee Pearson, who subsequently claimed not to have seen the punch.

Woodward had requested that Johnson be "treated like any other player who throws a punch", and said he was "disappointed" at the decision. The RFU disciplinary officer, Robert Horner, rejected accusations that Johnson had been dealt with as a special case, but accepted that the intense public interest in the affair had left the game "seeking a resolution".

Horner will now come under pressure to scrap the existing procedures and empower a team of disciplinary commissioners to view footage of each game and take whatever action they deem necessary within an agreed time limit.