Four-week ban puts Back out of Lions games

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The Independent Online

Neil Back was last night given a harsher smack in the face than the one he landed on Joe Worsley last weekend, when he was suspended for four weeks by a Rugby Football Union disciplinary hearing in London.

Neil Back was last night given a harsher smack in the face than the one he landed on Joe Worsley last weekend, when he was suspended for four weeks by a Rugby Football Union disciplinary hearing in London.

The ban runs from 18 May to 14 June, which means that the Leicester flanker misses the first three British and Irish Lions matches in New Zealand ­ against Bay of Plenty in Rotorua on 4 June, Taranaki in New Plymouth on 8 June and New Zealand Maori in Hamilton on 11 June. He will be free to play on the day the Lions are scheduled to tackle Wellington ­ 15 June.

There is just one Saturday fixture after that, against Otago in Dunedin on 18 June, in which the 36-year-old Back will be able to make his push for a place in the team to face the All Blacks in the first Test in Christchurch on 25 June.

It had been expected that Back would be handed a three-week ban, the standard tariff for punching but after pleading guilty to striking Worsley following a review of the incident on video by the Premiership citing officer, he was handed the extra week's suspension, which ruled him out of two vital extra tour matches.

The head coach, Sir Clive Woodward, regards Monday's warm-up match against Argentina in Cardiff as the first game of the tour, so Back has effectively been ruled out of four matches.

The case, which lasted more than three hours, was heard by a three-man panel chaired by His Honour Judge Jeff Blackett, the RFU's disciplinary officer, together with Jeff Probyn and Peter Budge at the Bloomsbury Holiday Inn.

The disciplinary panel's judgment stated: "The panel found that the punch was intentional, although Neil Back did not mean to cause the injury. It was delivered to an undefended player who was not expecting it and it caused significant injury.

"However, under the current regulations, the entry point for this offence is three weeks. The panel took into account Back's early plea of guilty, his genuine remorse, the fact that the offence was out of character and that he has a good record."

It is unlikely that Woodward will axe Back from the tour party, since the player, who intends taking up coaching full time after the Lions tour, will also be able to fulfil a quasi-coaching role as assistant to the defence specialist Phil Larder.

Worcester have taken steps to safeguard their greatest assets by offering their coaching team of John Brain and Andy Keast two-year extensions to their contracts. The duo had one more season to run on their existing deals but Worcester chairman Cecil Duckworth acted to ward off bids from other clubs.

Bath yesterday clinched the signing of Super 12 hooker Pieter Dixon from South African side Stormers on a two-year deal while Leeds snapped up the 30-year-old Scotland captain, Gordon Bulloch, from Glasgow.

* Reports last night claimed that Sir Clive Woodward will be offered the chance to help Britain's Olympic team prepare for the 2008 Games in Beijing.

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