Martin Corry, the Leicester captain, last night learnt that he would be brought before a disciplinary panel to answer a charge of gouging the Ospreys hooker Richard Hibbard during last Saturday night's fiery Heineken Cup match between the two clubs in Swansea. If the citing, made by the match commissioner Denis Templeton, is worrying news for the former England captain, it could be equally grim for the Ospreys coaching staff, who publicly accused a second visiting forward, Julian White, of a similar assault.
A tournament spokesman said there would be no citing against White, who will now join the England warm-weather training camp in Portugal and is free to challenge for a place in the opening Six Nations Championship match with Italy at Twickenham on Saturday week. He is also in a strong position to demand an apology from the two Ospreys coaches, Sean Holley and Jonathan Humphreys, who branded him a gouger – perhaps the most heinous accusation it is possible to lay before a rugby player.
The date of Corry's hearing has yet to be fixed, but it will be held "as soon as practicable", according to the official communiqué. Whatever happens to him – and if he is found guilty, his suspension is likely to run for months rather than weeks – the rumpus over the singling out of White is unlikely to die down in a hurry. The Heineken Cup administrators are in uncharted territory here. They have been faced with more than one incident of gouging down the years, but never with a situation quite like this.
Both Holley and Humphreys complained bitterly about "incidents" at the weekend – incidents they said left more than one of their players with marks around the eyes. "There are people in our dressing room who are very upset with Julian White," said Humphreys, who also accused the prop of getting up to no good during the first game between the two sides, at Welford Road in October.
Meanwhile, relations between England's elite professional clubs and the Rugby Football Union will come under increased strain today when talks begin over the Premiership fraternity's plans to expand next season's league programme by six matches to 28, with teams playing half their rivals three times rather than twice. "I'm anticipating a warm welcome," admitted the clubs' principal negotiator, Mark McCafferty.
"We know we're making a big call here, but doing nothing in light of the economic climate is not an option," continued the chief executive of Premier Rugby Ltd, the top-flight teams' umbrella organisation. "If we can't reach an agreement, it will be time for Plan B – and there is no Plan B. All we could do is ask the shareholders to put their hands in their pockets and pull out more money. The train can't keep travelling in that direction: these people have been affected by the downturn like everyone else. We can't just settle for the status quo. At least half our clubs expect to make operating losses as it is.
"We know we'll be in for a lot of criticism if we move away from the traditional model, but we've had a problem with basic business foundations for a long time now, and that problem is regular fixtures, without which it is very difficult to build an audience."
Even if the RFU was of a mind to agree to the Premier Rugby proposals, there would have to be a thorough examination of the potential for player "burnout". Leading England internationals are already going down like ninepins, to the extent that Martin Johnson, the national manager, has been forced to summon a platoon of reinforcements to the Portugal camp.
Steffon Armitage, the London Irish flanker, has travelled to the Algarve as a fully-fledged member of the England elite squad – the direct result of Lewis Moody's broken ankle suffered in training at Leicester last week. Joe Worsley of Wasps, a 50-cap veteran fallen on hard times internationally, was also called up after Michael Lipman, the Bath captain, was concussed during his club's Heineken Cup draw with Toulouse on Sunday. Other replacements include the World Cup-winning lock Ben Kay, covering for the stricken Tom Palmer, and the uncapped wing Matt Banahan, in for Ugo Monye of Harlequins, who has a back injury.Reuse content