Johnson may be in clear to face French

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The Independent Online

Martin Johnson could still be free to lead England against France in Paris on 2 March whatever the outcome of tonight's disciplinary hearing, in Bristol, into the punch thrown by the Leicester lock, which left Saracens' Robbie Russell needing six stitches to a cut under his left eye.

If the three-man panel decides that the sin-binning of the England captain during the Premiership match 12 days ago was an insufficient punishment and suspends him, Johnson will then have 14 days in which to appeal. If the ban were long enough to write off Johnson's chances of appearing at the Stade de France, he could serve a sizeable part of it then lodge an appeal, at which point the ban would be lifted until the outcome of that appeal.

But equally the panel ­ chaired by the criminal lawyer, Richard Smith QC, and comprising the Rugby Football Union senior vice-president, Derek Morgan, and the council member, Richard Moon ­ might decide that a suspended sentence would be better, or even that the yellow card was sufficient punishment and in either event Johnson would be clear for the France match anyway.

If Johnson is banned, it would set a precedent in that any player yellow-carded for foul play would be prone to possible additional disciplinary action, despite the referee having dealt with it at the time. That is certainly the view of Johnson.

There were more immediate worries for the authorities yesterday when Philippe Saint-André, the departing Gloucester coach, claimed the reason for him quitting was down to pressure being put on him by the RFU to pick England-qualified players in his club side. "The RFU interferes more and more in the clubs' decisions," Saint-André said.

"They give them £1.7m every season and believe they can influence their sporting decisions. Until now I was the only one to decide in that field and the club's results always proved my choices were right because we climbed from 11th spot three years ago to our current position of second in the Premiership. But recently I have felt pressurised concerning my choice of certain players. Basically it was better if I chose English players."

One English player who may not be facing France is Johnson's Leicester team-mate, Graham Rowntree, the loosehead prop. He damaged knee ligaments against Ireland and sits out the Premiership match at Northampton this weekend.

Bath's Mike Catt is definitely out of the reckoning for club and country, but in his case it is for the rest of the season. Catt is to undergo surgery for a torn shoulder tendon. He is expected to be out for between four and six months. Jon Callard, the coach, is now likely to pitch the England Under-21 prospect, Ollie Barkley, in at fly-half, starting against Sale on Saturday.

The Wales second row, Craig Quinnell, is another casualty out for the rest of the Six Nations after injuring a knee in training with Cardiff yesterday.

Budge Pountney is back in the international fold for Scotland. The Northampton flanker has been named in Ian McGeechan's squad to face Ireland at Lansdowne Road on 2 March, but Bryan Redpath stays as captain after leading the Scots to victory in Italy. Pountney missed the win against Italy with an abdominal injury.

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