Lions Tour 2013: Stamp ban storm hits Wallabies' Test hopes
IRB appeals James Horwill 'let-off' and replaces Kiwi hearing judge with British-Canadian
The Wallaby captain James Horwill will definitely face the British and Irish Lions in Saturday's mighty set-to at the Docklands Stadium, but his chances of seeing out the series are now dangerously slim. The International Rugby Board, deeply perturbed by the decision to clear the Queensland lock of a stamping charge arising from last weekend's Test in Brisbane, has appealed against the finding, much to the fury of the Australian hierarchy.
Horwill will find himself back before the bench next week, but Nigel Hampton QC, the independent judicial officer from New Zealand who originally cleared him, has been replaced by the lawyer Graeme Mew, who holds Canadian and British passports and practises in London as well as in Toronto. If the not guilty verdict is reversed, Horwill will miss the Sydney Test. Bill Pulver, the chief executive of the home union, said the board's "unprecedented step" had the potential to disrupt the Wallabies in the lead-up to a game they must win to stay in the three-match series.
"While we respect the right of the IRB to intervene, we also respect the knowledge of appointed – and independent – judicial officers," he said. "James Horwill was cleared as per the established process. We are surprised and disappointed that the finding is now not only under question, but deemed erroneous."
Horwill was cited for stamping on the head of his rival lock, Alun Wyn Jones, in the first Test – Jones needed stitches near his eye – and video footage did not show the incident in a good light. Yet Hampton gave the Wallaby the benefit of the doubt, accepting the player's claim that he was off-balance and there was no foul play.
The Lions, who had brought the incident to the attention of the authorities, were hardly shell-shocked by the decision: there is a long and inglorious southern hemisphere tradition of leniency in such cases. The new element is the IRB's reaction. In a statement, the governing body stressed its commitment to player welfare and said it felt "compelled to further examine potential foul play".
The Wallaby coach, Robbie Deans, said he was "satisfied with the process" and felt the acquittal to be "just and fair". It seems some very important people disagree.
Meanwhile, Kurtley Beale and James O'Connor, two-thirds of Australian rugby's "terrible trio", may not have breached any team protocols by visiting a Melbourne fast-food joint at a time far closer to breakfast than supper, but there was certainly a breach of trust. This became clear when Deans and the centre, Adam Ashley-Cooper, delivered their verdicts.
"Obviously, it wasn't an ideal hour to be out," said Deans, who, like the rest of the world, knew nothing of the escapade until the pair were photographed by a Lions supporter at around 4am on Wednesday morning. "We've had a conversation, for sure, and it wasn't a comfortable conversation. I understand they wanted to catch up with their Rebels club-mates after the midweek game against the Lions. They now understand that it was too late for them to be getting to bed."
Deans managed to maintain a neutral expression, but he is no Laurence Olivier: he was clearly fuming. It was equally evident that Ashley-Cooper was less than impressed.
"We're too far into our preparation for the second Test to let this be a distraction," he said frostily, "so it's been something for the management to deal with. The senior players can address it post-series."
Both Beale and O'Connor will start Saturday's game – which the Wallabies must win if they are to take the Lions to a decider. Beale, who came off the bench in Brisbane to make some telling contributions before handing the tourists victory with two late penalty misses, will play at full-back in place of the concussed Berrick Barnes. O'Connor will again feature at outside-half.
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