England's QC called off the bench again after Lawes' little knees-up
Lock the latest in trouble after being cited for 'assaulting' Argentina hooker during win
A manager and five frontline coaches, fitness specialists times three, analysts times two, a doctor, a pair of physios, a masseur, a "kit technician" – oh, for the days when the good-natured Dave Tennison called himself a "baggage man" and had done with it. All in all, England have two dozen people in their backroom team for this World Cup including, lest we forget, Richard Smith QC, their legal counsel. Why would a rugby side need a barrister? Because at least once a tournament a player lands himself in a heap of trouble.
Yesterday, tournament adminstrators confirmed that Courtney Lawes, the Northampton lock, had been cited for an alleged assault on the Argentine hooker Mario Ledesma during the first half of last weekend's tough opening game in Dunedin. Murray Whyte of Ireland, the match commissioner, set the process in motion after reviewing footage of the game and reaching the conclusion that by sliding into his prone opponent, Lawes had committed an offence that warranted a sending-off. The case will be heard today in Auckland, a two-hour flight from here, by the Australian judicial officer Terry Willis.
It goes without saying that England could do without the hassle, but they – and Smith in particular – have rich experience of this disciplinary lark. In 2003, they found themselves in serious bother after contriving to play 30 seconds or so of their pool match against Samoa with 16 men rather than 15. They could have been docked pool points, which would have made their path to the final much harder, but escaped with a fine, thanks in no small part to their barrister's mastery of legal argument.
Four years ago in France, the England captain Phil Vickery was banned for two matches for tripping the American back Paul Emerick in a style that Norman "bites yer legs" Hunter might have applauded. Vickery's suspension could've been double, but again there was a successful plea in mitigation.
Smith has also been kept busy on red-rose business outside of World Cups. Initially brought in by Clive Woodward after a series of fierce spats with disciplinary panels on summer visits to the southern hemisphere – not least on trips to New Zealand – he has dealt with urgent problems on and offthe field. In 2008, he took control of England's handling of the so-called "Auckland Four" incident, when members of the tour party were accused of serious sexual misconduct. Last summer, when the Test team travelled to Australia without him, he was duly called upon to advise from afar on a citing against the lock Dave Attwood, who ultimately escaped punishment on a technicality.
Lawes has not been reported for what appeared to be a marginally late hit on the Puma centre Gonzalo Tiesi shortly before the Ledesma incident, even though it forced the former London Irish and Harlequins centre off the field – and, indeed, out of the tournament – with damaged medial ligaments. But if he is found guilty of dropping a knee into Ledesma, he can expect a ban similar to the one imposed on Vickery, if not lengthier.
This will be of some concern to Martin Johnson. Lawes may not be under consideration for Sunday's meeting with Georgia in Dunedin anyway, but he is clearly seen as a starting forward for the bigger games ahead. There are only three other specialist locks in the party – Tom Palmer, Louis Deacon, Simon Shaw – and of that trio, only Palmer is comfortable jumping in the middle of the line-out. England use Tom Croft, the flanker, in that role as often as they use anyone else, but if the news from Auckland is bad, they will have to rethink their strategy.
Meanwhile, the Scotland coach Andy Robinson has made wholesale changes to his side for tomorrow's meeting with the strong-scrummaging Georgians in Invercargill, a game that seems far less straightforward in light of the Scottish pack's powder-puff performance against Romania at the same venue last weekend. Only two players – the wing Max Evans and the prop Allan Jacobsen – continue in the same positions while two others, Sean Lamont and Kelly Brown, switch roles. Lamont moves from inside centre to left wing, Brown from blind-side flanker to No 8.
Robinson insisted that his selection was based on the "four-day turnaround" principle – there will have been a mere 96 hours of recovery time separating the Romania and Georgia games – rather than on the unexpected torment of the opening match, in which Scotland needed two late tries from Simon Danielli to extricate themselves from the mire. Even so, the coach will be extremely interested in the performances of certain individuals, the tight-head prop Euan Murray and the lock Nathan Hines among them. With Argentina and England ahead, his pack needs some strength and mongrel from somewhere.
The Georgians are what the International Rugby Board likes to call a "developing nation". The question is how far they have developed since the last World Cup in France, when they frightened the life out of Ireland, and on the coaching front at least, the signs are encouraging – or worrying, if you happen to watch your professional rugby in Edinburgh or Glasgow. Richie Dixon, a Scotland coach in a previous life, runs the show in Tbilisi, aided and abetted by the Australian defence strategist John Muggleton, who was at the heart of the Wallaby effort when they conceded only a single try in winning the 1999 World Cup.
"I thought Romania played particularly well against Scotland and perhaps showed that the gap between the Six Nations teams and the European Nations Cup sides is not as great as people might believe," Dixon said. "We are confident in our ability to scrummage, but we are also trying to get more balance in our game. We envisioned how our progression would take place and I'm glad to say we're where we want to be."
There are no household names among the men from the Caucasus, but the prop David Zirakashvili and the flanker Mamuka Gorgodze are good enough to play Top 14 rugby for Clermont Auvergne and Montpellier respectively. Horizontal pacifists they are not.
Fly-halves and flying pigs: is the world cup ball at fault?
England World Cup winner Will Greenwood said yesterday that the poor kicking of Jonny Wilkinson and other fly-halves at the start of this year's tournament was less plausible than a "flying pig", amid increasing criticisms of Gilbert's Virtuo ball.
Wilkinson, Chris Paterson, Jonathan Sexton and Martin Rodriguez all underperformed at the weekend, scoring 13 goals from a total of 34 kicks. Greenwood, speaking to The Independent, questioned why players of their quality were all kicking so poorly.
"You're more likely to see a flying pig than to see Jonny Wilkinson missing in front of the sticks, or Paterson to miss or Sexton to miss," he said. While there have been no official complaints from any of the fly-halves yet, Greenwood was baffled by their collective underperformance, which he described as "very weird".
Despite the growing questions over why world-class kickers were struggling to find their target, ball manufacturer Gilbert insisted yesterday it was "delighted with the performance of the ball". Andrew Challis, Gilbert's international brand manager, told The Independent that all the feedback he had heard was positive. "We've only heard positive comments from players and team management," he said. The Virtuo ball was used for the 2011 Six Nations and Tri-Nations, and the teams were sent 15 to train with in June, and another 30 on arrival in New Zealand. "It's not a new ball," Challis said.
Greenwood attributed the good performances of England youngsters Manu Tuilagi and Ben Youngs to their Premiership experience with Leicester. "They got their chances at 19 or 20, and so Tuilagi did it against Ireland and Wales, and Youngs always plays for England like he does for Leicester. Structures are being set up to allow players to feel as comfortable in England as they do in the Premiership."
Will Greenwood is an ambassador for Aviva – proud title sponsors of Aviva Premiership Rugby. For the chance to prove your passion for club rugby, visit avivapremiershiprugby.com/passionate
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