England were last night preparing themselves for a serious diplomatic wrangle with the organisers of the World Cup following the confusion over substitutions at the end of Sunday's close-run minor classic with Samoa in Melbourne.
The tournament director, Fraser Neill, has asked the England management to explain their decision to send Dan Luger, their replacement wing, on to the field in the dying minutes of the game without obtaining the permission of the relevant touchline official.
For their part, England have accused Steve Walsh, the international referee from New Zealand, of verbally abusing one of their back-room staff, the fitness co-ordinator, Dave Reddin, during a row over the incident.
Richard Smith, a barrister who is acting as England's legal adviser during the competition, spent the day working on submissions relating to the affair. The tournament administrators, led by Neill, have also called for reports from the match commissioner, Geoff Shaw, and the pitch-side official directly involved in the Luger incident, Brett Bowden.
Walsh, who refereed yesterday's match between Japan and the United States, also acted as a touchline official in the England-Samoa game.
At the time, the fuss surrounding Luger's sudden appearance on the field seemed nothing more than a farcical comic interlude. England were 35-22 up in the fifth minute of injury time when Mike Tindall, the Bath centre, suffered a leg injury and hobbled off to be treated on the far touchline.
Clive Woodward, the coach, issued orders that Luger should take the field straightaway, but permission was not immediately forthcoming. Luger, under pressure from his bench, went on anyway; a few seconds later, Tindall returned. For a few embarrassing moments, England had 16 players on the paddock. Tindall then left the field, quickly followed by Luger, who had managed to involve himself in one ruck and concede a penalty during his 34 seconds of activity.
While the England management accept their touchline officials were in the wrong, they have been alarmed by the storm whipped up by the Australian media. Indeed, they see it as further proof of the overt anti-English bias they believe has been evident since the tournament began more than a fortnight ago.
They have a point. Yesterday, the Wallaby coach, Eddie Jones, publicly called for England to be disciplined. "I hope England are punished for this," he said. "I definitely think their pitch-side people should be censured or reprimanded for not following the instructions of the officials. We all like to stretch things to the limit and get replacements on the field as quickly as we can, but it is very important that teams follow the protocol because you don't want a game to be spoiled by something silly."
Critics of the England team are now suggesting that Samoa have a right of protest, on the grounds that they might have scored a try during Luger's illicit intervention and earned themselves a valuable bonus point. While the most likely outcome is a formal warning from the tournament officials, a fine is not out of the question. In the worst-case scenario, the result could be scrapped. The rules of the competition state: "Where ... cancellation of a match is deemed to be caused by a participating union, not acting under instruction of a match official or ... match commissioner, such participating union shall ... be subject to the decisions of Rugby World Cup regarding forfeiture of the match, and financial and other sanctions."
Forfeiture would make an enormous difference to England's campaign. They currently head the Pool C table with 14 points, with Samoa and South Africa on 10 apiece. Given the overwhelming likelihood of victory over Uruguay this weekend, they would still make the quarter-finals. But either of their closest rivals, who meet in Brisbane on Saturday, could win the group and condemn Woodward's team to a last-eight contest with the All Blacks back in Melbourne, rather than a likely meeting with Wales in Brisbane.Reuse content