Ban rules Byrne out of England showdown

Wales full-back suspended for '16th man' controversy as Ospreys escape with fine
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The Independent Online

Lee Byrne, the Wales and Lions full-back, will miss his country's opening Six Nations match with England at Twickenham a week today after being suspended for a fortnight as a result of the "16th man" debacle during the Heineken Cup match between Ospreys and Leicester seven days ago.

Ospreys must pay a heavy fine of €25,000 (£21,670) for their part in the affair, but are free to prepare for a quarter-final tie with Biarritz in April following the disciplinary panel's ruling that there was no justification for a replay of the game against the Premiership club.

Leicester, who had taken specialist advice from a team of sports lawyers in the hope of getting the match declared null and void, must now accept their unusually early exit from the world's leading club competition. They will not be wholly surprised at the decision, however. The last high-profile case of this kind featured England, who contrived to field one too many players against Samoa at the 2003 World Cup. They were fined, but their place in the tournament was never threatened.

While the Ospreys could do without a financial penalty on this scale, they have not been seriously damaged: they are, after all, the wealthiest of the four Welsh regional sides. Byrne, on the other hand, will be distraught, as will the Wales coach, Warren Gatland, who regarded the 29-year-old player as a key part of his armoury for the England game, in both attack and defence.

Both player and club admitted charges of misconduct arising from events during the second half of last week's contest at the Liberty Stadium in Swansea. Byrne, who was off the field for treatment on a bloodied toe, returned without permission from the match officials and before his replacement, Sonny Parker, had been withdrawn.

For around a minute, Ospreys had an extra man in play – a minute during which Leicester were threatening to score. The English champions subsequently called for a replay on the basis that Byrne had been instrumental in preventing a try.

The independent disciplinary committee, chaired by Pat Barriscale of Ireland, found that Byrne "knew, or ought to have known, that he needed that permission", and that his club could have done more to ensure such a breach of the substitution protocol did not occur. Crucially, they also decided that the act had not been deliberate or premeditated and had no material effect on the match. Byrne can play again on 13 February, the day of Wales' second Six Nations fixture, against Scotland at the Millennium Stadium.

There was more disappointing news for the Welsh hierarchy when Sale announced that Dwayne Peel, the 2005 Lions scrum-half, had signed on for two more years at Edgeley Park. Peel, out of favour at international level in recent months partly because he was playing in England, had been strongly linked with a return to his homeland. "I still have ambitions to play for Wales but I have been made very welcome at Sale from day one," he said.

Meanwhile, the England centre Riki Flutey spent yesterday dampening expectations of an immediate renaissance of red-rose back play against the Welsh. Fully recovered from the shoulder injury that prevented him playing in the autumn internationals, Flutey admitted that some of the former world champions' play had been "a little over-prescriptive at times" and added: "We're realistic; we know where we are as a group and we know there's a lot of room for improvement."

Flutey, who moved to Brive last year, drew a sharp comparison between the playbook-driven style in vogue on this side of the water with the less rigid rugby played in France. "They don't like the word 'structure' or playing with too much of it," he said following the England squad's five-day training stint on the Algarve.

"When I first arrived in Brive, I found it tough trying to organise the people inside and outside me ahead of the next phase. Where there had been pattern and direction in the Premiership, I was having to think on my feet. That's been the biggest difference.

"But I think England were much improved in their last match against New Zealand and we've shown that once we've worked through a game plan and reached a full understanding of it, things come right."

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