James Lawton: Johnson's wretched thuggery needs serious disciplinary action

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The Independent Online

In the relentless documenting of the ills of football, we should pause for a moment and ask a question of rugby union. Is it really a grown-up game played and administered by men with whom you would confidently entrust the well-being of your son?

We will know a little better today or tomorrow when the game's disciplinary officer, Robert Horner, announces his reaction to the latest video nasty produced by the Boris Karloff of the oval ball. Martin Johnson, celebrated captain of England and the Lions, has done it again. He has performed a sickeningly cowardly assault on a rival player and thus far his only inconvenience has been a stint in the "sin-bin."

Robbie Russell, of Saracens, who is Johnson's latest victim, describes the attack as "gutless." What happened is gut-wrenchingly familiar. Johnson had the ball after his Leicester team had conceded a penalty. Russell, seeking to get on with the game, attempted to grab the ball. Johnson's response was to hit him in the face. Russell was also sent to the sin-bin. By the time he got there his eye had closed and the cut below it required six stitches.

This wasn't a fleeting aberration, of course. Johnson is a serial offender. Twelve months ago he was suspended for five weeks for a brutal attack on Saracens' Duncan McRae. With delicious timing, the authorities ensured that Johnson was available for the opening game of the Six Nations tournament in Cardiff. Video evidence showed clearly that Johnson had put his knee into McRae, then stamped on him. Johnson explained his reasons for an unsuccessful appeal against a suspension which, in reality, simply allowed him to rest up for the big internationals. He said: "I will play the same way I did before I was suspended. I appealed against the ban because there were other incidents in that match for which we could have cited the Saracens players."

This, don't forget, is not some schoolyard ruffian claiming, "He did it first, sir," but the lionised captain of England, a player of magnificent physical gifts, a hard talent and stupendous achievement.

If Johnson had done what he did at the weekend on the street or a football field, his feet would scarcely have touched the ground. In isolation it was a wretchedly thuggish deed. And then you had to consider the "previous". Most disgusting to dwell on is the time he cold-cocked the All-Black scrum half Justin Marshall. After the game, Marshall shook his head and talked about the bells ringing in his ears. He could have been brain-damaged. Johnson's penalty was a one-match ban.

What we are left with, inevitably, is the inescapable conclusion that the game in this country is morally incompetent. It is a conclusion the notably red-blooded Lawrence Dallaglio hinted at the last time Johnson went so crudely over the top. Said Dallaglio: "I'm not going soft, but at the moment we have a very worrying situation with regard to foul play in the Premiership. I know many feel that the Super 12 [the élite league of the southern hemisphere] is squeaky clean, but it's still a pretty fierce competition. I hope we don't wait – as we usually do – until someone gets seriously injured before taking action."

The fears expressed by Dallaglio will surely redouble if Johnson is treated with scandalous leniency yet again.