Judicial inquiries have been a part of English rugby for some time now - allegations of racial abuse arising from a tempestuous Premiership match between Gloucester and Newcastle prompted one, as did unproven suggestions that Rotherham received slush-fund money in return for forfeiting their place in the top flight in 2002. Now, England themselves are in the dock, as a result of the pitch-side chaos at the end of the close-run victory over Samoa in Melbourne last Sunday.
World Cup officials have ordered Clive Woodward, the national coach, to appear before an independent judicial officer, Brian McLaughlin of Ireland, in Sydney today. Two charges of misconduct have been laid at England's door: the first against the team in general, in respect of fielding Dan Luger, their replacement wing, contrary to the direct instructions of a touchline official; and the second against Dave Reddin, the team's fitness co-ordinator, who was at pitch level and was a central figure in the incident.
Woodward and Reddin will both travel to the hearing, as will Luger. Richard Smith, a barrister acting as England's legal specialist during this tournament, and Richard Prescott, the Rugby Football Union's director of communications, will also travel. Woodward's evidence, along with that of the match commissioner, Geoff Shaw, and various officials involved in the game, will decide the outcome of the so-called Great Substitution Scandal, which has fast become the talk of Australia.
The coach will be asked to explain why Luger, the former Harlequins wing who begins a career in French club rugby at the end of the tournament, was told to take the field during injury time, in defiance of instructions from Brett Bowden, the "fifth official", who attempted to prevent him joining play. The coach will also be questioned over an embarrassing six-second spell, during which England had 16 players on the pitch, rather than the traditional 15.
There was no indication last night whether another touch-line official, the New Zealand referee Steve Walsh, would be investigated for his alleged part in a ferocious argument with Reddin after the final whistle. Walsh, among the favourites to control the World Cup final on 22 November, has been accused by England of verbally abusing Reddin.
Under instructions from Fraser Neill, the tournament director, England handed over a number of depositions and witness statements on Tuesday. Neill considered the documents, along with those fielded by Shaw, Bowden and the match referee, Jonathan Kaplan, of South Africa, before deciding on his course of action. If England are held culpable - and there seems little prospect of any other outcome - possible punishments range from a stern reprimand or a heavy fine to deduction of match points, which could conceivably deny them a likely quarter-final with Wales in Brisbane, and pitch them instead against New Zealand in the more demanding half of the draw.
This last possibility is favoured by the Australian rugby public, who would like nothing better than to see England push off home at the earliest possible juncture. "The organisers must show courage over England's extra-man scandal and strip the Poms of their points from the win over the Samoans," said Toutai Kefu, a top-quality Wallaby ruled out of this competition by injury. "England defied a tournament official, and that's the key issue. England have to take a real good look at themselves. They showed a lack of respect; the whole thing smacks of arrogance."
Kefu's has hardly been a lone voice on the topic; his fellow World Cup-winning Wallabies, Jason Little and Phil Kearns, have weighed in with similar views. Needless to say, the tirade has not impressed Woodward, who is acutely aware of what he sees as an anti-English bias running through the competition.
"I lived in Australia for five years, and 99.9 per cent of Australians are fantastic," he said yesterday. "One or two idiots ruin it. Australian friends of mine keep ringing me to say sorry."
* The Romania coach, Bernard Charreyre, will step down after his side's final World Cup match against Namibia today. Romania have suffered three heavy defeats in the tournament, losing 45-17 to Ireland, 90-8 to hosts Australia and 50-3 against Argentina.Reuse content