‘Accused’ fate rests on talks with police

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Seventy-two hours after setting in motion the biggest scandal to hit England's rugby team since Lawrence Dallaglio's first spell as national captain ended in a tawdry tidal wave of tabloid sex-and-drug allegations, New Zealand detectives were today meeting a high-powered band of red-rose officials in an effort to secure interviews with the so-called “Auckland Four” - a quartet of players accused of an unspecified offence of sexual misconduct in the aftermath of last weekend's heavy defeat by the All Blacks in the Eden Park Test.

The England management delegation, which included the Rugby Football Union's chief executive Francis Baron and the travelling lawyer Richard Smith QC as well as a hand-picked team of local legal experts, were reluctant to expose the unnamed players to questioning unless and until the travelling members of Auckland's Criminal Investigation Bureau gave firm details of the nature of their inquiry. The police travelled south to New Zealand's second largest city despite the absence of a formal complaint of sexual assault against the alleged victim. The England camp planned to argue that there was no case to answer.

While the tourists would have preferred not to be embroiled in such sensitive and complex business the day before an important rematch with the All Blacks at Lancaster Park, they are keen to bring an end to this sour affair before Sunday evening, when the majority of players and back-room staff are scheduled to fly home. This is purely dependant on the outcome of today's discussions. If, as the police have insisted since Tuesday, the alleged offence is serious, the case could remain open for weeks, or even months.

Privately, the management are furious at the way the police have handled events. The initial statement from the Auckland force was far from detailed - there was no confirmation of the nature of the claims against the England players, or even if the complainant was a woman - but it was sufficiently startling to provoke torrents of speculation. Even though the police refused to expand on the statement, it quickly emerged that some of the tour party had gone drinking in the basement of a strip club following the Eden Park defeat before returning to the team base, the five-star Hilton Hotel on the city's waterfront, with a number of women.

According to the police statement, the alleged offence was committed in one of the hotel bedrooms in the small hours of Sunday morning. They have not explained the delay in the filing of a formal complaint, or indicated whether they expect such a complaint to be made.

There has been a similarly deafening silence from the England camp, where all members of the tour party have been ordered to circle the wagons and ignore questions on the subject. This, say insiders, is to ensure that nothing is said that might threaten or prejudice the four players' legal position.

However, it is clear that some individuals' behaviour fell way below expected standards last weekend, and that their actions will lead to the introduction of restrictive new tour protocols, bordering on the draconian. The players would certainly have been subject to internal disciplinary action but for the intervention of the police, which took the management wholly by surprise and dashed hopes of a quick conclusion. It is thought that RFU officials are investigating the possibility of hiring security staff in an effort to prevent women entering team hotels - or at the very least, the players' bedroom areas - on future trips, which begin with Six Nations visits to Cardiff and Dublin next year, followed by a tour of Argentina, which runs concurrently with the British and Irish Lions trip to South Africa.