Delon Armitage, one of only two full-backs in England's elite squad, will miss the forthcoming Six Nations Championship in its entirety after being suspended for eight weeks by a Rugby Football Union disciplinary panel last night. Armitage was found guilty of pushing, and using threatening language towards a drugs tester after playing for London Irish on New Year's Day. Given the strength of the panel's condemnation of his actions, he can consider himself extremely fortunate to escape so lightly.
"His behaviour was completely unacceptable," said the panel chairman, Judge Jeff Blackett, after the hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice. "It brought discredit on himself and his club and failed to uphold one of the core values of the game – respect. Doping control officers should expect to carry out their important work without fear of abuse, and be treated with respect at all times."
Judge Blackett, regarded as the most influential disciplinarian in world rugby and one of the men at the heart of Twickenham's move to repair the sport's image after the fake blood affair at Harlequins and the drugs-related scandals at Bath in 2009, said Armitage had been given credit for his remorse, his letter of apology to the official and his "relatively good record". The 27-year-old can resume playing on 17 March. As this is only two days before England's final tournament fixture, against Ireland in Dublin, his Six Nations goose is effectively cooked.
He might have fared much worse, especially as he denied pushing the officer. Players found guilty of shoving referees or touch judges – Neil Back, the England flanker, and Percy Montgomery, the Springbok full-back, were at the centre of the two most high-profile cases in recent memory – have received six-month bans. However, Judge Blackett said the panel "took into account that it was not a violent push, but more of a brush past", adding that the doping officer accepted this version of events.
The incident happened immediately after a London Irish-Bath game at the Madejski Stadium in Reading, which the visitors won with the last kick of the game. Armitage has been playing since: indeed, he performed well for the Exiles in their Heineken Cup victory over Ospreys five days ago, creating their opening try with two brilliant interventions.
Martin Johnson, the England team manager, is already preparing to name replacements for three injured forwards – Courtney Lawes, Tom Croft and the captain Lewis Moody – ahead of the opening Six Nations game with Wales a fortnight today. Now, he needs a back-three replacement. Alex Goode, considered a world-class No 15 in the making by the coaching staff at Saracens, might be the most adventurous choice, but he is currently struggling for fitness and misses his club's game with Clermont Auvergne tonight. Should he drop out of the running, Nick Abendanon of Bath would be the obvious alternative.
There will be no call on the replacements until Monday. The England back-room staff, uncomfortably aware of the potential for more setbacks, are awaiting the conclusion of this weekend's European club business before making their choices.
Johnson is not the only one with personnel issues. Yesterday, the Wales management received the news they were dreading when Ospreys confirmed that Adam Jones, the form tight-head prop in world rugby, would miss the Six Nations with an elbow injury suffered during his club's defeat at London Irish. "The scans have confirmed our suspicion of significant ligament damage and soft tissue trauma," said Chris Towers, the Ospreys head physiotherapist. "We've discussed the case at length, both with orthopaedic specialists and the Welsh Rugby Union's medical team, and expect Adam to be out for around eight weeks."
A lay-off of that length will take Jones well beyond the final Six Nations match in France on 19 March, and with his fellow Lions front-rower Gethin Jenkins also out of commission, Wales have real issues ahead of their meeting with England a fortnight today. Paul James and Duncan Jones, two more Ospreys props, are loose-heads who know their way round the Test arena, but in the crucial tight head position, Wales are in Old Mother Hubbard land.
Two players announced their retirements from the professional game yesterday. The Cardiff Blues and Newport Gwent Dragons flanker Robin Sowden-Taylor, who won eight caps for Wales, has packed it in at 28 to pursue other ways of making a living, while Richard Skuse, the Saracens prop, has called it day at 30 after failing to recover from a neck injury.Reuse content