Twelve months after giving Martin Johnson, the England captain, the green light to start a Six Nations campaign while banning him for violent misconduct, the Rugby Football Union's disciplinarians yesterday played a similar card on behalf of another of Leicester's senior internationals, Austin Healey. A three-man panel found Healey guilty of kicking the Sale wing, Anthony Elliott, during last month's Premiership match at Welford Road, but imposed a backdated suspension that freed him to play in the Calcutta Cup match in Scotland on 2 February.
Healey was banned for three weeks from 4 January – precisely half the usual suspension for a kicking offence. "We take the view that the norm is applied to clear acts of kicking by one player on another, usually when the victim is on the ground," explained Commodore Jeff Blackett, the tribunal chairman. "This incident sits somewhere in-between that type of kick and a trip." Blackett described Healey's action as "petulant and petty", but added that no injury was caused, and Elliott himself believed Healey had intended a trip rather than a kick.
If England's Six Nations rivals suspect the RFU of dealing with big-name miscreants on the basis of red rose convenience, they can hardly be blamed. Last year's Johnson affair was greeted with a degree of astonishment by those national unions who considered his assault on the Saracens outside-half Duncan McRae, who suffered serious damage to his ribcage, worthy of more than a five-week ban that just happened to end the day before the Wales-England match in Cardiff. This latest judgement is unlikely to restore their faith in Twickenham's disciplinary machinery.
"We feel it was a fair hearing," said the Leicester team manager Dean Richards, who imposed his own two-week ban on Healey last week. "It was a reckless act, and it makes life difficult for us in respect of the critical games coming up: the Heineken Cup match at Llanelli this weekend and the Powergen Cup semi-final with Harlequins next Saturday. But Austin has shown a certain amount of remorse and is upset by his own stupidity. Over the last few years, he has tried hard to improve his position and credibility in the game. He has matured greatly, and he is keen to put this behind him."
The tribunal was equally lenient on Alex Sanderson, the Sale flanker, and Matt Stewart, the Northampton and Scotland prop. Sanderson, accused of spitting at Leicester players following a dust-up in the closing stages of the match in which Healey transgressed, escaped with a reprimand, despite being found guilty of misconduct. The three-man panel said Sanderson had suffered provocation and had been "dazed in the physical confrontation preceding the spitting". They also said that "the spit was not directed specifically at any one player".
Stewart, meanwhile, was given a severe reprimand for using his knee and his fist on a London Irish opponent during a bad-tempered match on 29 December. According to Blackett, the incident was "at the very bottom end of the scale of seriousness" and was "just worthy of being cited". Like Healey, Stewart is free to play in the Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield.
As expected, Healey was named in a 30-man squad scheduled to begin Six Nations preparations on Monday. Clive Woodward, the coach, is working largely within the confines of the élite squad he constructed last month, although two players – the Northampton hooker Steve Thompson and the exciting London Irish back-row Declan Danaher – have been fast-tracked from the development squad. A third newcomer, the Saracens second-string scrum-half Nick Walshe, has been drafted in from back end of beyond, largely because Matthew Dawson is struggling with ankle problems. Henry Paul, now playing centre for Gloucester after a rugby league career bordering on the legendary, is the fourth uncapped man in the party.
In Wales, Swansea's poor domestic form has cost two gifted forwards, the Lions prop Darren Morris and the back-rower Geraint Lewis, their places. Neath contribute seven players, including the uncapped No 8 Nathan Bonner-Evans.
Six Nations Squads
Backs: A Healey (Leicester), I Balshaw (Bath), M Catt (Bath), M Perry (Bath), M Tindall (Bath), K Bracken (Saracens), N Walshe (Saracens), B Cohen (Northampton), W Greenwood (Harlequins), D Luger (Harlequins), C Hodgson (Sale), J Robinson (Sale), H Paul (Gloucester), J Wilkinson (Newcastle), D Danaher (London Irish). Forwards: N Back (Leicester), M Corry (Leicester), B Kay (Leicester), M Johnson (Leicester), L Moody (Leicester), G Rowntree (Leicester), D West (Leicester), D Grewcock (Bath), M Regan (Bath), R Hill (Saracens), S Thompson (Northampton), J Leonard (Harlequins), J Worsley (Wasps), P Vickery (Gloucester), J White (Bristol).
Backs: K Morgan (Swansea), R Williams (Cardiff), D James (Bridgend), M Jones (Llanelli), G Thomas (Bridgend), C Morgan (Cardiff), S Williams (Neath), J Robinson (Cardiff), M Taylor (Swansea), A Bateman (Neath), A Marinos (Newport), S Jones (Llanelli), I Harris (Cardiff), L Jarvis (Neath), G Henson (Swansea), R Howley (Cardiff), G Cooper (Bath), D Peel (Llanelli). Forwards: D Jones (Neath), I Thomas (Ebbw Vale), S John (Cardiff), C Anthony (Swansea), R McBryde (Llanelli), B Williams (Neath), M Davies (Pontypridd), C Quinnell (Cardiff), N Budgett (Bridgend), I Gough (Newport), A Moore (Swansea), C Wyatt (Llanelli), B Sinkinson (Neath), N Bonner-Evans (Neath), G Thomas (Bath), C Charvis (Swansea), M Williams (Cardiff), S Quinnell (Wales).