Johnson in line to lead England against France

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The Independent Online

Martin Johnson, convicted on the facts but not yet condemned in rugby law, will train with England at their Six Nations base camp in Surrey today, and may well lead his country against France in Paris this weekend. By lodging an appeal against jurisdiction on behalf of their prized and priceless lock forward, the Leicester club have made it possible for Clive Woodward, the red rose manager, to name an unchanged side for a match that has the words "Grand Slam decider" written all over it.

Johnson, banned for three weeks for punching the Saracens hooker Robbie Russell at Vicarage Road 16 days ago, believes he is available pending the date of the next hearing, at which the Rugby Football Union's disciplinary procedures in respect of his case will be challenged. Yesterday, Twickenham sources said the chances of the appeal going ahead this week were remote almost to the point of nonexistent, because of the complex regulatory issues raised. Woodward is therefore likely to have a free hand in selecting his team.

The manager will press for an early call on the likely date of the hearing. Woodward's approach to big-match preparation borders on the obsessive – team run on Monday, heavy defence session on Tuesday, attack session on Wednesday, rest day on Thursday, light workout on Friday – and any disruption tends to darken his mood. Should Johnson be ruled out, he has a ready-made replacement of Lions quality in the formidable shape of Bath's Danny Grewcock. What he does not want to do is select Johnson and then find himself de-selecting him midway through the build-up.

Although Robert Horner, the union's disciplinary officer, remains a central figure in the case, much of the direct responsibility has passed to his predecessor, Roy Manock, who is now two-thirds through his term as the RFU president.

Manock, well versed in the blind alleys and cul-de-sacs of rugby law, is charged with convening a new panel with sufficient clout to consider, and adjudicate on, the arguments put forward by Johnson's high-powered legal team. His quartet of lawyers, led by senior counsel Bita Bhalla, are suspicious of the judgment of last week's panel, which rejected claims that Horner had acted outside of RFU regulations by calling the hearing in the first place.

Peter Wheeler, the Leicester chief executive and former England captain, strongly defended Johnson before Saturday's Premiership game between the Tigers and Northampton at Welford Road. "We know his temperament – it is one of the reasons we and England want to have him and are proud that he is our captain," he wrote in the match programme. "His qualities have enhanced the reputation of this club for over a decade. Nobody takes his responsibilities to the game and to the public more seriously, nor gives his time more freely.

"If on rare occasions he oversteps the mark, he and the club will take the punishment. However, rules should not be brought in retrospectively because some people feel a punishment was not sufficient. If the game as a whole decides that a crackdown on foul play is necessary, it should be agreed and made effective from a specific date, following which it applies to all."

Neil Back, Johnson's chief lieutenant at Leicester, would captain the national side. But if Johnson convinces Woodward he is mentally tuned, he is virtually certain to be picked.

* The France lock Thibault Privat has withdrawn from the squad to play England with a knee injury. He will not be replaced.

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