James Lawton: What price will you pay for victory, Clive?

The Independent's Chief Sports Writer writes an open letter to the England coach
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Dear Clive,

I'm nearly certain of what you will make of this, how you will see it as the outpouring of another bleeding heart, someone on the sidelines who does not understand the imperatives that have gone into putting England's rugby team into the world's elite.

But I'm afraid that, however much one admires your work, and defers to the extraordinary, if sometimes cranky, passion of your commitment to the challenge you set yourself when you declared you were going to radically extend the horizons of the team, it is still necessary to ask you quite an important question.

It is the one your French counterpart, Bernard Laporte, framed with some eloquence this week when, despite injury problems, he decided to leave out of today's team against Wales his lock David Auradou after some undisciplined rampaging against the Italians two weeks ago.

Quite simply, it asks: "At what point does victory become over-priced?" Indeed, when does it become worthless, a whore's trinket? When is it utterly demeaned, when is it a matter not of glory but shame?

The answer, surely, is when the desire for it has excluded all other considerations. When that desire has become a monster.

All kinds of supplementary questions are provoked by your frankly chilling decision to play your captain Martin Johnson against Ireland at Twickenham today. What does it say to any youngster going out to play that it is possible to smash your fist into an opponent's face, in full view of the television cameras, one Saturday, and then lead out your country's team the next? Doesn't it suggest that you have formally announced that winning is everything, and, if this is so, why would anyone with a scrap of finer feeling give tuppence to see your team triumph over the Irish?

What does it announce to the Welsh player, Lisa Burgess, who, for heaven's sake, is the most capped player in women's rugby, after her three-week ban for a particularly appalling stamping of an opponent? It says that her judges care a little more about some basic values than the coach of England, though not enough to do the right thing and throw her out of the game.

The sickening thing, Clive, is that you had the perfect opportunity to make a real statement about the need for new priorities in a game that cheerfully describes itself as professional.

You could have said that for all his value as a leader and a lock Johnson's recidivist behaviour had carried him beyond a point of decency. You could have said that the thuggery stopped here. Instead, you said: "I had no qualms at all about Martin's re-selection and I have been very clear in my thinking. Clearly it was not a good incident. He isn't proud of what he did and I wish he hadn't done it. But we have to move on. I don't suppose it was the last punch thrown in rugby and it won't ruin the sport for all eternity. We should remember that in an England environment Martin's self-control has been outstanding. He plays right on the edge but knows when to step back."

Right now, Clive, you're involved in the fine tuning of a big international game performance, but maybe ­ when another win or loss is recorded ­ you may want to go back on those foregoing statements. You may want to analyse them for anything that hints even vaguely at a degree of selflessness or concern for the moralities not just of sport but life itself. You may want to consider the impact of your statement "but we have to move on" on anybody who is bedevilled by something called conscience. You may want to hold up to the light that declaration that in the 'environment of England' the player's self-control has been outstanding. Unless I'm much mistaken, Johnson was wearing the shirt of his country when he viciously attacked the New Zealand scrum half Justin Marshall a few years ago, and also when he had an England try ruled out at the Arms Park for throwing punches while completely detached from the play.

In some ways, Clive, you are as much victim as culprit. Victim of a game that is locked into some permanent adolescence. There have been so many changes in rugby union, as there have been in the world, over recent years, but, despite your insistence that we must move on, rugby simply has not in any philosophical way. It has not got beyond a pathetic macho celebration of boys being rough to the point of criminal offence. Of course, rugby is a tough game. I played the course form of it in my youth. I suffered painful Sundays when the rigours of the action seeped through the alcoholic haze. I know something of the ethos of the game. I had a pal who graduated into the red shirt of Wales. I was proud of his toughness and his talent and had no reason to consider his potential for thuggery. I knew that the punches had always been thrown, just as they will always be launched in pubs and other places of heightened emotion, but your game is supposed to be professional and aware that it is under unprecedented scrutiny.

Your other great forward Lawrence Dallaglio has already announced his misgiving about the trend of violence in senior professional rugby in this country. He has warned that the game is in danger of responding properly only in the wake of serious injury, or worse. It is, given the mores of the modern game, a brave stance to take but, unlike you, Dallaglio can only offer his voice. This week you had the power to act. You could have said that there were limits beyond which your ambition to be a winning coach would not go. You could have said that playing Martin Johnson would be to compromise your belief in the meaning of sport. You could have made a clean start.

But you did not do any of that. You played the tune to which so many rugby types have become accustomed. You trotted out the usual lines from the Pontius Pilate Book of Useful Sayings. You said that Martin Johnson must await another court, and that in the meantime we must move on. But to where?

To a new era of responsibility? A time when a line is drawn between a man's game and one for psychos and roughnecks? Hardly. Your decision to pick Johnson was a declaration of support for the status quo. For the aiding and abetting of bully boys. You may draw great satisfaction from victory over the Irish today, but excuse me if I pass on the cheering.

It so happens I will be in Cardiff, watching a team whose coach has selected himself a prize beyond any single triumph. Bernard Laporte has said that some things are more important than winning. It is extremely sad, Clive, that you were unable to say the same.

Yours in sport, James Lawton