Johnson could return to face Wales

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The Independent Online

It is a moot point whether Martin Johnson actually wants to play for England against Wales a fortnight next Saturday, given the tactical shambles that passed for a red rose performance in Paris at the weekend. The England hierarchy are keen for their captain to turn out at Twickenham, however, and they may conceivably get their way, even if Johnson's three-week ban for punching is upheld at today's appeal hearing.

The assumption that Johnson will miss the Wales fixture if his appeal is dismissed is flawed, because the Rugby Football Union disciplinary officer, Robert Horner, may decide that the Leicester lock has already served three days of the 21-day suspension imposed for punching during a Premiership match at Saracens last month. Johnson, originally banned from 22 February to 15 March, gave notice of appeal almost immediately, but his signed confirmation was not received until three days later. Crucially, he did not play for his club against Northampton that weekend.

If the original suspension is ratified, and Horner counts the 72 hours between the imposition of the ban and the activation of the appeal as "time done", Johnson could be ordered to serve the remaining 18 days from today – and that would free him to play from 23 March, which just happens to be the date of the England-Wales game. In light of last season's disciplinary controversy surrounding Johnson, whose five-week ban for violent misconduct expired hours before the Wales-England fixture, this scenario could make the valleys brethren cry "conspiracy".

David Pannick QC, a judicial review specialist, will decide today whether Horner was right to bring the national captain before last month's disciplinary tribunal. Johnson, Leicester and Premier Rugby, the organisation representing the interests of the 12 top-flight professional clubs, have appealed against jurisdiction on the grounds that the player was sin-binned for the punching incident and had therefore been dealt with under Premiership regulations.

Dean Richards, the Leicester team manager, will be among the Leicester contingent attending the hearing, but his appearances at Twickenham will be far less regular as a result of his decision to resign his seat on the RFU's Club England sub-committee. The former Lions No 8 announced his decision yesterday, claiming that Club England had become an irrelevance.

"Club England's original brief was to oversee the game at all levels, from grass roots to the international stage," Richards said. "However, that was before the formation of England Rugby: the partnership between the Premiership and the RFU set up exclusively to manage the international and professional club game. The result is that Club England now has little or no function."

On the Premiership front, Bath have lost two more of their all-international back-line, the England full-back Matt Perry and the Wales scrum-half Gareth Cooper, for the foreseeable future. Perry has a prolapsed disc in his back, while Cooper has been plagued by foot problems since the start of the campaign. More positively, the West Countrymen are hopeful of signing the strong-running French international prop Sylvain Marconnet from Stade Français in time for next season.

Gloucester have confirmed that Nigel Melville, the former Wasps coach, will succeed Philippe Saint-André at Kingsholm. John Kingston is to remain with the Harlequins back-room team, despite losing his job as head coach last week.

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