Johnson saga leads to Pannick measures

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The Martin Johnson affair has provoked more than its share of frenzied responses over the last two and a half weeks, not least from the Rugby Football Union, so it seems entirely appropriate that the whole caboodle should have landed in the lap of David Pannick QC, who has been appointed to hear the England captain's appeal against the RFU's disciplinary procedures. Pannick, whose many professional specialities include sports law, will sit at Twickenham next Tuesday and a judgement is expected that afternoon.

Much to the exasperation of those who consider his occasional violent outbursts to be beyond the pale, Johnson will lead England against France in Paris on Saturday. He was suspended for 21 days last week after admitting punching Robbie Russell, the Saracens hooker, during a Premiership match at Vicarage Road on 9 February, but the RFU has since received two appeals, one from Leicester and the other from Premiership Rugby Partnership, the organisation representing the interests of the élite professional clubs. Both claim the union acted outside its own regulations in bringing Johnson to book in the way it did.

Pannick, who will sit as an independent single arbitrator, is an acknowledged authority on public and administration law, employment law, immigration law and European law. A judicial review specialist, he has appeared in some 40 cases in the House of Lords, 20 in the European Court of Justice, more than a dozen in the European Court of Human Rights and has acted in hearings involving the Home Secretary, the Chief Rabbi and, by way of something different, a broadcasting venture known as Red Hot Television.

Few international rugby sides are less red hot than Wales, who have made two changes for their potential Six Nations wooden spoon match with Italy at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday. Iestyn Thomas, of Ebbw Vale, and Ian Gough, of Newport, have replaced the Cardiff forwards Spencer John and Craig Quinnell at loose-head prop and second row respectively. The Llanelli lock Chris Wyatt is also likely to play a role off the bench after returning from injury.

Steve Hansen, the caretaker coach, was under considerable pressure to perform surgery on his back-line, which is widely considered to be underpowered at this level. However, Hansen resisted the temptation to shift the Lions threequarter Dafydd James to outside centre and give the in-form Pontypridd wing Gareth Wyatt a tilt at the Azzurri. As a result, the inexperienced midfield pairing of Andy Marinos and Tom Shanklin gets a second chance to hit overdrive, having spluttered against the French 12 days ago.

England travelled to their French base in Chantilly yesterday, having trained without their influential open-side flanker and defensive organiser Neil Back. After missing last Saturday's Premiership victory over Northampton with neck trouble, the Leicester breakaway pulled out of the red rose attacking session with a minor hamstring niggle. He is not thought to be in danger of dropping out of Saturday's match.

One player in danger of losing his international credentials entirely is Matt Perry, the Bath full-back, who failed to make the cut for tomorrow evening's second-string A match with France in Limoges. As recently as last June, Perry was the Lions' Test full-back in Australia, having beaten his clubmate Iain Balshaw to the punch for all three games against the Wallabies. The England hierarchy see things differently, though; they regard Balshaw as tomorrow's man and have named him ahead of Perry for this game.

Henry Paul's promotion to the senior party means that Josh Lewsey will partner his Wasps colleague Fraser Waters in midfield. Matthew Dawson, back in top-line rugby after a depressing run of injuries, replaces Nick Walshe at scrum-half; Mark Regan, another Test Lion, plays at hooker, and the exciting Leicester second-row prospect Louis Deacon gets a well-deserved opportunity in the engine room alongside Steve Borthwick, who captains the side.

Meanwhile, the England Under-21 selectors have named a side stacked with Premiership experience for their French challenge in Tours tomorrow night. Tom Voyce and Olly Barkley, of Bath, have already been capped at full international level, and great things are expected of the Leicester centre Oliver Smith, the Bath flanker James Scaysbrook and the all-purpose loose forward from Gloucester, James Forrester.

WALES TEAM (v Italy, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Saturday)

Backs: K Morgan (Swansea), D James (Bridgend), C Morgan (Cardiff), T Shanklin (Saracens), A Marinos (Newport), S Jones (Llanelli), R Howley (Cardiff) Forwards: I Thomas (Ebbw Vale), C Anthony (Newport), R McBryde (Llanelli), I Gough (Newport), A Moore (Swansea), N Budgett (Bridgend), M Williams (Cardiff), S Quinnell (Llanelli, capt) Replacements: B Williams (Neath), S John (Cardiff), C Wyatt (Llanelli), B Sinkinson (Neath), D Peel (Llanelli), I Harris (Cardiff), R Williams (Cardiff).

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