Pressure mounts on RFU to ban captain Johnson

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The Independent Online

Respectable England rarely find themselves out-manoeuvred on the disciplinary front by the combustible French, but it happened yesterday when Bernard Laporte, their coach, took strong action against two errant lock forwards just as his opposite number, Clive Woodward, was explaining why he felt unable to drop Martin Johnson for this weekend's Six Nations meeting with Ireland at Twickenham.

Not for the first time in recent campaigns, Johnson landed himself in a heap of trouble by punching the Scotland hooker Robbie Russell during Saturday's televised Premiership match between Saracens and Leicester. Both Russell, who needed six stitches in an eye wound, and Johnson, who suffered nothing more than bruised knuckles, were sent to the sin-bin by the referee, David Pearson – a decision that would have signalled the end of the matter in normal circumstances. Johnson is not a normal circumstance, however; he is the England captain, and a high-profile player with a good deal of previous.

After two days of media-generated uproar, the Rugby Football Union disciplinary officer, Robert Horner, is now investigating the incident and will consider bringing a disrepute charge against the Lions lock. Uncomfortably aware that suspensions imposed on Johnson and a second Leicester player, Austin Healey, over the last 13 months were viewed with deep suspicion by the rest of the Six Nations community – the bans just happened to expire in time for both to play in important England matches – Horner is under considerable pressure to throw the book at the national captain.

Yesterday, Woodward defended his selection of his captain for Saturday's international by insisting the matter was in Horner's hands, as opposed to his own. Asked why he had not taken unilateral action against Johnson, as he had in dropping him for a Twickenham Test against the Springboks in 1997, he replied: "On that occasion, I left him out as a result of something he did while playing for England the previous week. I was in charge of that situation, and I made the call. On Saturday, Martin was playing for Leicester, and I have no jurisdiction over him when he plays for his club."

It was not a convincing explanation, and it seemed even less persuasive when news began to filter through from the French camp. Laporte dropped David Auradou from his squad for Saturday's game with Wales in Cardiff, citing the Stade Français line-out specialist's visit to the sin-bin against Italy 11 days ago. He also refused to promote the former Tricolore captain, Fabien Pelous, in Auradou's stead, because Pelous had been yellow-carded while playing for Toulouse against Montauban last weekend. Olivier Brouzet of Northampton will partner Thibault Privat of Béziers at the Millennium Stadium, with Pelous on the bench.

"For two years, I have striven for good behaviour, discipline and the setting of a good example," said Laporte, who is determined to rid French rugby of the disciplinary scars left by Palmie, Dubroca, Moscato and other assorted head-bangers and basket-cases. "All the referees I meet keep praising me for this and recognise that today, we are the least penalised of teams. There is no question of my letting people go overboard and break down the good things we have achieved."

While Woodward was unapologetic – "I had no qualms at all in respect of Martin's selection," he insisted, "and I have been very clear in my thinking" – he did condemn Johnson's punch. "Clearly, it was not a good incident," he said. "He isn't proud of what he did, and I wish he hadn't done it. But we have to move on. I don't suppose it was the last punch anyone will ever throw in a game of rugby, and it won't ruin the sport for all eternity. We should remember that in an England environment, Martin's self-control has been outstanding. He plays right on the edge, but knows when to step back."

And the man himself? Johnson fronted up yesterday, as he generally does. "I over-reacted and it shouldn't have happened," he admitted. "I've played enough rugby to know that if I do that sort of thing, I have every chance of being sent off." He seemed resigned to being banned at some point over the next fortnight. "The chances are that the RFU might want to take it further, in which case I'll have to accept it. You have to be accountable for your actions."

Ireland have recalled two Lions forwards, the flanker Eric Miller and the lock Malcolm O'Kelly, to their side for the England game. France, meanwhile, will show six changes to the side that beat Italy in Paris. Nicolas Brusque, Xavier Garbajosa, Pierre Mignoni, Raphael Ibanez and Imanol Harinordoquy join Brouzet in the starting line-up.

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