As if England did not have enough problems ahead of the autumn international series, which begins at Twickenham on Saturday week with an awkward match against a Fijian side they know next to nothing about, they discovered last night that Chris Ashton, their most threatening wing, had been banned from the opening fixture by a Rugby Football Union disciplinary tribunal. The way is now clear for Charlie Sharples of Gloucester and Ugo Monye of Harlequins to occupy the wide positions against the tourists.
Ashton, an automatic choice for his country, was suspended for seven days after being cited for a dangerous tackle on the Russian international wing Vasily Artemyev while playing for Saracens against his old club Northampton at Franklin's Gardens last weekend. From the England perspective, that game was more trouble than it was worth: two important forwards, the hooker Dylan Hartley and the lock Courtney Lawes, picked up knee injuries during the course of it and are now off-limits to the head coach, Stuart Lancaster.
The three-man tribunal, headed by the RFU's chief disciplinary officer, Judge Jeff Blackett, were obliged to deal with Ashton under the totting-up system. The former rugby league player picked up two yellow cards last month, and as this latest offence was also deemed worthy of a trip to the sin bin, a short ban was inevitable.
Blackett explained that as Ashton had not been released back to Saracens for this weekend's home game with Wasps, it would have been "inappropriate to commence the suspension immediately". In activating the ban from this coming Sunday, thereby ruling Ashton out of all rugby until 11 November, the judge added: "We are concerned about his tackling technique. We would like to add that he took a realistic and mature approach to proceedings and expressed genuine contrition."
Meanwhile, the turmoil at Sale eased a little yesterday when Bryan Redpath, removed as rugby director after a run of seven straight defeats in the Premiership, agreed to stay on as head coach. He will also sit on a four-man strategy board, alongside the chief executive Steve Diamond, the major investor Ian Blackhurst and the former England and All Blacks coach John Mitchell, who is working with the club on a consultancy basis and is expected to join as a full-timer over the next few days.
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