Wilkinson faces probe over balls


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Ball-fiddling can be added to the list of England's distractions at the World Cup, although yesterday's bizarre spat between squeaky-clean Jonny Wilkinson and the tournament authorities looks unlikely go beyond a referee's slap on the fly-half's wrist.

According to a tournament spokesman, Wilkinson twice requested that he be able to choose a ball to kick at goal in the first half of England's 67-3 defeat of Romania. It worked the first time, when Wilkinson converted Chris Ashton's 32nd-minute try with a ball that was brought on by a water-carrier. But the second time Wilkinson attempted the switch the French referee, Romain Poite, advised him that he was flouting the laws of the game.

Martin Johnson, the England team manager, said: "Wilko thought one of the balls was slightly less than perfect, he wanted to swap it, the ref said no so we got on with it." But if the match commissioner, Bruce Cook of Australia, includes it in his official match report it will be up to tournament director, Kit McConnell, a New Zealander, to decide whether to take further action.

Teams are given six balls each to use in their captain's run the day before a match, and nominate four each to be used in the game. These are numbered, which is how Wilkinson would have been able to reject or ask for a particular one. But laws 21.3 (c) and 9.B.1 (a) on the taking of penalties and conversions state: "the kicker must use the ball that was in play unless the referee decides it was defective."

Wilkinson had his kicking coach, Dave Alred, at pitchside and while this curious episode involving two experienced figures may turn out to have been a psychological ploy, both men must be concerned at the all-time World Cup top scorer's form. Wilkinson has a 50 per cent success rate, with three penalties and four conversions in two matches, against five missed penalties and two missed conversions.