Seven years ago, Clive Woodward struck upon the idea of adding a fully fledged barrister to the England squad every time they crossed the Equator – a clear sign the manager was sick to the back teeth of the southern hemisphere's approach to rugby justice. How he must be chuckling now. Yesterday, the touring New Zealanders vented their fury on rugby justice European-style, claiming the hooker Keven Mealamu had been given a rough deal at a judicial hearing in Glasgow on Tuesday night.
Mealamu appeared before Professor Lorne Crerar, a judicial officer appointed by the International Rugby Board, to answer a charge of butting the England captain Lewis Moody during last weekend's Test match at Twickenham. The 31-year-old Auckland player was found guilty and banned for a month – a sanction that ruled him out of the remainder of this current Grand Slam tour of the British Isles, and sent the All Black hierarchy into orbit.
"We'll go to the death on this case," said the coach Steve Hansen, confirming that an appeal had been lodged. "We're defending a guy whose character has been questioned when it shouldn't have been. He's a one-off, special person who hasn't got a dirty bone in his body. The guys are gutted that he can't play and, more importantly, gutted for Keven because of the man he is. Everyone knows it's not in his nature to do that: he's not a dirty player, and never has been. If he says he didn't do it, he didn't do it."
Generally speaking, defendants have to offer something more than a flat denial to win a case, but the All Blacks clearly take the view that Mealamu should have been believed. Whether or not their unusually fierce reaction was driven by the fact that they suddenly find themselves short of match-fit hookers ahead of Saturday's meeting with Scotland at Murrayfield, or whether it stems from the fact that they are unused to finishing second in disciplinary hearings, is open to question. This much is certain: the appeal hearing, tentatively scheduled for tomorrow, will be keenly fought by both sides.
Meanwhile, the New Zealand captain, Richie McCaw, expressed surprise at the authorities' failure to cite Mealamu's direct opponent last weekend, the England hooker Dylan Hartley, for an illegal shoulder charge at a ruck. "I don't like bitching and moaning – it's not the way I am," remarked McCaw, the victim of the alleged assault. "But all players want to see a level of consistency. Inconsistency is our biggest frustration. I don't know if the referee saw it, but I certainly made it known to him that I'd been hit. I don't like people taking cheap shots. It annoys me."
Scotland, already denied the services of a couple of injured forwards in lock Alastair Kellock and No 8 Johnnie Beattie, lost Gloucester scrum-half Rory Lawson yesterday, calling up the uncapped Edinburgh player Greig Laidlaw in his stead. Lawson, named on the bench as understudy to Mike Blair, failed to respond to treatment on a hand injury and was forced to withdraw.
Saracens confirmed plans to move back into north London, their spiritual home, next season. They intend to leave Vicarage Road, Watford, for Barnet Copthall Stadium, which, if local authority permission is granted, will be developed as a multipurpose sports venue, hold around 10,000 spectators and be equipped with an artifical playing surface. "This is a unique opportunity," said Nigel Wray, the Saracens chairman.