Ellis nears return as Bergamasco is banned

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The Independent Online

On a day when Italy were dealt a massive blow with the news that Mauro Bergamasco would miss the rest of the Six Nations Championship after landing a 13-week ban, there were far better tidings for England with reports that scrum-half Harry Ellis could be close to a comeback.

Ellis, who suffered knee ligament damage last May that ruled him out of both the conclusion of Leicester's successful season and England's World Cup campaign, could even be in line for a Tigers return against Leeds this weekend.

Italy, though, will be without Bergamasco for the rest of the Six Nations after the back-row forward was banned for 13 weeks. Bergamasco, who had been cited by an independent commissioner, was found guilty by a three-man disciplinary panel of deliberately placing his finger in the right eye of Lee Byrne, the Wales full-back, in the Six Nations match in Cardiff last Saturday.

The disciplinary committee chaired by Christopher Quinlan (England) and comprising Dr Barry O'Driscoll (Ireland) and Mike Rafter (England), considered the offence to merit an entry point in the middle range of sanctions laid down in the International Rugby Board's regulations and took into account the player's admission of guilt and other mitigating factors.

Bergamasco, who has the right of appeal, will be free to resume playing on 2 June. It is the second time in 12 months that Bergamasco has picked up a suspension after playing against Wales. In March last year he was banned for four weeks for punching the fly-half Stephen Jones.

It is not the longest ban to have been dished out in the tournament. In 1990 Wales lock Kevin Moseley was banned for 32 weeks for stamping on France wing Marc Andrieu in a Five Nations match at Cardiff Arms Park.

At a separate hearing the Italy lock Carlo Del Fava was found not guilty of kneeing Stephen Jones in the head. Del Fava can now play for Ulster against Llanelli Scarlets at Ravenhill tomorrow and could be recalled to the Italy squad to face France in Paris on 9 March after he and Bergamasco were left out as a precaution by their coach Nick Mallett.

Reports in the Leicester Mercury indicated that the England scrum-half Ellis, who took part in the pre-match warm-up before last week's Premiership game against Sale, and club-mate Alesana Tuilagi, another long-term casualty, might be considered for this weekend's home match against Leeds. But all the Tigers' coach, Marcelo Loffreda, would say was that Ellis was "getting closer. I cannot tell you if they [Ellis and Tuilagi] are playing because we haven't done the team yet."

The France coach, Marc Lièvremont, continues in his quest to uncover quality players who can be developed in time for the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

Lièvremont has made sweeping changes to the team that lost to England at the Stade de France in Paris last weekend, bringing in five uncapped players and recalling three experienced faces for the match against Italy.

Three of the five new players are forwards: the prop Fabien Barcella, 24, of Auch, 22-year-old hooker Guillem Guirado of Perpignan and the Montauban flanker, Ibrahim Diarra, 24.

Lièvremont has left out teenage scrum-half Morgan Parra, replacing the Bourgoin player with 22-year-old Julien Tomas of Montpellier, and the coach has still found room for another 19-year-old, Bourgoin centre Yann David.

"They are players we have been following since the start and who have confirmed their worth game after game with their clubs," Lièvremont said of the newcomers.

He has also recalled the centre Yannick Jauzion and back-row forward Imanol Harinordoquy, while wing Julien Malzieu, who made his debut against Scotland, was the final change.

Lièvremont defended his selection policy against mounting criticism that he was throwing away a chance to win the Six Nations Championship. "A defeat is always painful and we play all the games to win with a team that we think highly competitive," he said.