Johnson's case leaves no room for compromise

Whatever the England captain's worth to his country on the field, Woodward should act according to what is right and wrong
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The Independent Online

Like a lot of apologists for thuggery in rugby union, England's coach Clive Woodward is adept at injecting a flash of logic into arguments which you would more naturally assign to large men who have bolts through their necks.

A good example came with his questioning of the true integrity of his French rival Bernard Laporte's stand on discipline. Woodward pointed out the compromise involved in Laporte's dropping of Fabien Pelous because of recent poor discipline while retaining his presence on the bench. "You either drop a guy or you don't; you're either pregnant, or you're not," declared Woodward, skipping over the fact that the French coach had also dropped David Auradou for a failure of discipline. It was not too bad a rhetorical stab by Woodward, perhaps, but he should understand that the Martin Johnson affair has progressed to a point where a mere sophistry will not only not do but, indeed, becomes outright humbug.

Johnson is a huge presence in the rugby union firmament. He has been entrusted with the captaincy of both England and the Lions. Woodward, as we saw again at Twickenham at the weekend, has done a masterful job in carrying England to the top of the world rankings. But in the matter of Johnson he has plainly taken his eye off the ball.

Certainly he misread the scale of the message contained in the smoke signals which went up the moment Johnson launched his sickening attack on the Saracens hooker Robbie Russell. Some of those signals have been dismissed as mere "media pressure" with the implication that the case for him to drop Johnson before last Saturday's victory over Ireland was somehow contrived, that it was the yapping of dogs as much as genuine outrage.

Even more curiously, Woodward is pointing to Johnson as some defining example of the rewards of good discipline. He claims that when Johnson puts on his England shirt he becomes a paragon of virtue. The record says not. What he inflicted on Russell, a year almost to the day of his equally nauseating assault on another Saracens' player, Duncan McRae, was not a flashpoint which came completely out of character. That proposition is a myth of laughable proportions. The assault on Russell – and how else do you describe it? – was part of a pattern which has weaved through both his club and international career.

That last point is, anyway, of only limited application in assessing Woodward's role in the controversy. Johnson's antecedents, both positive and negative, should not obscure for anyone the reality of what he perpetrated a week last Saturday.

It was not a spontaneous eruption at some pinnacle of action. The play was in fact dead. It was a brutal act of frustration that mercifully did no more damage than the closing of Russell's eye and a need for six stitches. What Woodward has refused to accept is that his captain's behaviour was so appalling it crossed any fine line of demarcation between club and international rugby. It was something that demanded of the coach an unequivocal response, one which announced before anything else the irrelevance of Johnson's potential contribution to the match against Ireland. It did not matter what colour shirt Johnson was wearing when he banjoed the unsuspecting Russell. He was on a rugby field, and which one it was mattered no more than whether a gratuitous act of violence is committed in the Savoy Grill Room or the bar of the Dog and Thief.

Johnson carries the responsibilities of his office whenever he plays. So does the coach when he picks his team.

Now Woodward says: "Martin threw a punch and there are a lot of punches thrown in the Premiership. If he is banned, every other player who throws a punch should be banned. If that doesn't happen, I'll be very disappointed." Perhaps. Perhaps not. What we have here is probably not a call for a massive clean-up of professional rugby, a clear statement that thuggery should be outlawed, but another rhetorical flourish. The implication is that boys will always be boys, and that rugby is a hard game of unrelenting physical contact which inevitably spawns moments of unfettered violence.

For so long we have been told that taking the punch out of rugby is the equivalent of taking sin out of the world. That it's just not on. Players will always go over the edge, and the fiercer the game the more likely the physical repercussions. Indeed we are told not to forget the redemptive power of a good honest punch-up. It clears the air, skims off the tension, settles down the players. Later this week a rugby union tribunal, chaired by a QC, will be obliged to adjudicate on these outrageous propositions. If it is wise, it will swiftly reject them, along with all the other bromides which so regularly have put to sleep the debate over rugby's need to grow up.

Woodward is correct about the clear division between those who are pregnant and those who are not. Now he must draw another line in the dust. It should be the one that separates right from wrong.

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