England had so many issues with South Africa’s top-rated referee, Jonathan Kaplan, during their defeat by Wales at the Millennium Stadium 10 days ago – two players in the sin bin, a dozen penalties conceded, confusion all round – that the red-rose hierarchy yesterday embarked on an aggressive propaganda campaign aimed at Kaplan’s countryman, Craig Joubert, ahead of this weekend’s difficult Six Nations contest in Ireland. It is a high-risk strategy. If they thought Kaplan was bad, what can they expect from an official ranked three places below him?
Brian Smith, the England attack coach, was the first man on the barricades, and he left his audience in no doubt as to his view of Kaplan’s performance in Cardiff. “We’re frustrated,” he said, when asked about his side’s spectacular recent penalty count – by some distance, it is said by statisticians, the worst in international rugby. “The referee’s whole demeanour through that match, the way he addressed our team in the changing room beforehand – he clearly had heaps of pressure put on him by Wales. It’s clear to me that the Welsh did their job in terms of getting stuck into him. Fair play to them for doing it: teams are looking to get every advantage they can. What we want is to be judged the same way as everyone else.”
Next up was the captain, Steve Borthwick, who was a picture of exasperation on a number of occasions in the Welsh capital. “There was a run of six penalties against us in the early part of the game,” he said. “At that point I asked the referee: ‘What’s going on here? There are things you’re seeing that I’m not seeing’.” Had he been satisfied with Kaplan’s response. “What do you think?” the Saracens lock replied.
“If it was a case of us doing one thing wrong, it would be a relatively quick fix,” Borthwick continued. “Unfortunately, there seems to be various problems in the contact area, and we’re working to get our penalty count down. But we need to play right to the boundaries of the law – that’s international rugby – and it’s important that both sides are refereed equally. That’s all we ask, and I don’t think we’re asking too much. We want a standard to be set against which we can hold ourselves accountable.”
With the exception of Italy, whose entire approach to the game has been rendered obsolete by the experimental laws introduced last autumn, England have been the slowest to react to the new realities of life in and around the tackle area, as interpreted at Test level. Both Smith and Borthwick emphasised their determination to contest the loose ball with ferocity at Croke Park on Saturday night, but if they imagine life will be easier as a result of yesterday’s exercise in spin, Mr Joubert may well disabuse them of the notion.
Dylan Hartley, the second-string hooker to Lee Mears, is doubtful for the game after suffering a calf injury during Northampton’s narrow defeat at Wasps on Sunday. He was on crutches yesterday. Other, less serious fitness concerns – the predictable consequence of 17 players being released back to their clubs for Premiership duty – persuaded the management to call in two uncapped forwards, the Worcester prop Matt Mullan and the Bath lock Peter Short, as training cover.
However, it was the French who suffered the rough end of the orthopaedic lottery yesterday. Neither Lionel Beauxis, the Stade Français outside-half and principal goal-kicker, nor Maxime Mermoz, the impressive young centre from Perpignan, will feature against Wales in Paris on Friday night, having failed to go the distance in last weekend’s round of Top 14 matches. Beauxis, who has a hip problem, has been replaced by François Trinh-Duc of Montpellier, while Mermoz, suffering from a torn quadriceps, sees his place taken by the immensely powerful Mathieu Bastareaud, a club colleague of Beauxis.
By way of rubbing it in, Wales declared that Shane Williams would be fit to replace Mark Jones on the left wing after missing the England game, while Gavin Henson had recovered from his recent injury hassles and would sit on the bench ahead of Andrew Bishop.
Wales (v France, RBS Six Nations Championship, Stade de France, Friday, 8pm): L Byrne (Ospreys); L Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues), T Shanklin (Cardiff Blues), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Scarlets), M Phillips (Ospreys); G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), M Rees (Scarlets), A Jones (Ospreys), I Gough (Ospreys), A-W Jones (Ospreys), R Jones (Ospreys, capt), M Williams (Cardiff Blues), A Powell (Cardiff Blues). Replacements: H Bennett (Ospreys), J Yapp (Cardiff Blues), L Charteris (Newport-Gwent Dragons), D Jones (Scarlets), D Peel (Sale Sharks), J Hook (Ospreys), G Henson (Ospreys).