Austin Healey was uncharacteristically Garboesque yesterday, signalling his wish to be left alone by delivering a curt one-liner to the waiting media scrum. "I have a plane to catch," he said, disappearing into the depths of Dublin Airport after being fined a chunk of his Lions tour fee by a disciplinary tribunal convened to consider the Leicester scrum-half's journalistic indiscretions during the recent Test series in Australia. It was very definitely not vintage Healey but, there again, neither was the article that caused all the fuss.
The tribunal, chaired by the Lions manager, Donal Lenihan, with the help of the coach, Graham Henry, and the team captain, Martin Johnson, decided unanimously that Healey had been in breach of his tour contract and had brought the squad into disrepute by rubbishing the Wallaby lock Justin Harrison, in particular, and, some would say, Australia in general – in a "ghosted" column published in The Guardian on the eve of the decisive international in Sydney in July. However, they also accepted Healey's insistence that the offending words had been penned by his amanuensis, the former Wales captain, now journalist, Eddie Butler.
Furthermore, the tribunal took Healey at his word when he stated that he did not agree with the sentiments attributed to him, and that he would have made changes had he been in a position to check the article before publication.
"Healey stated that he did not have the opportunity to check the article, and that if he had had that opportunity, he would certainly have found it unacceptable," said Lenihan after the hearing, which lasted two and a half hours. "The committee believes that he is the victim of a breach of trust by his ghost journalist and accepts his submission that he regrets the incident and intended no disrespect to the Lions or the tour management.
"However, the incident was a serious one. The committee ruled that players have to take responsibility for the personal arrangements they make with the media, and for any statements published under a player's name. The content of the article was totally unacceptable. It embarrassed the Lions and those who had travelled to Australia to support the tour. It clearly brought the Lions into disrepute."
Lenihan refused to disclose the extent of the fine, but it was thought to be in the region of £2,500 – half the financial penalty imposed on the Northampton scrum-half Matthew Dawson, who ripped into the Lions management in a self-written "tour diary" published on the morning of the opening Test in Brisbane.
Healey, who was accompanied by his agent, Jonathan Barnett, and the Leicester team manager, Dean Richards, was also ordered to pay his own costs. He has a right of appeal and will weigh up his options over the next 48 hours. "Needless to say, Austin would like a bit of peace and quiet," Richards said, with a straight face.
If Healey did not use the words "plod", "plank" and "ape" to describe Harrison, with whom he had been engaged in a private war throughout the tour, he deserves a smidgen of sympathy, just as the readers of his column deserve an explanation. But Healey was being paid honest money for his thoughts on the Lions' fortunes in the back yard of the world champions, and the least he could have done was to have spent a few more minutes expressing them to his beleaguered Boswell in language of his own choosing.
Happily, there is a strong chance that the British Isles hierarchy will learn the lessons of a magnificently farcical episode and take steps to avoid any repeat pantomime in New Zealand in 2005. Five of the biggest hitters in Lions officialdom – Fran Cotton of England, Syd Millar of Ireland, Allan Hosie of Scotland, Geoff Evans of Wales and the chief executive, Roger Pickering – meet at the end of the month to discuss the issue of media management on future tours. It is all but certain that players and coaches will be prevented from writing – or not writing, as the case may be – columns, diaries or any other type of newspaper article for the duration of their tour contract. As Henry said in Sydney two months ago: "Enough is enough."Reuse content