Punch that knocked a sport silly

With one blow Martin Johnson exposed the depth of rugby's fault-lines. Hugh Godwin studies the damage
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The whirlpool of arguments – sporting, moral and legal – set in motion by Martin Johnson's self-confessed "over-reaction" in punching Robbie Russell 15 days ago is greater than any dizziness felt by the Saracens hooker. The latest developments yesterday in a case that has called into question the entire administration of discipline in rugby union surrounded Johnson's possible availability to lead England against France in Paris next Saturday.

In the early hours of Friday, Johnson was banned for three weeks by a disciplinary panel of the Rugby Football Union. The two-times Lions skipper – one of the very few rugby figures recognisable outside the sport – accepted the ban and will not be appealing. But before Friday was out, his club Leicester, backed by the umbrella organisations of both the professional players the Professional Rugby Players' Association and the Premiership clubs, launched an appeal against the jurisdiction of the RFU panel.

The subject on the minds of most England supporters is whether Johnson will be available at the Stade de France. If the appeal hearing is set post-Paris, he could play, albeit amid a probable storm of French indignation. If the hearing is rushed through this week, and the ban is upheld, he will not.

But the case helped raise a raft of questions that were grimly inevitable as rugby union continues its faltering steps into the open era. One of them is over Johnson's record. Johnson has won 18 of his 22 matches as England skipper, and he has never been sent off. But he was banned for five weeks a year ago for foul play. He was sent to the sin-bin for punching in arguably the most important match in Leicester's history, last May's Heineken Cup final, having had the same punishment for fighting in the semi-final against Gloucester. He was dropped for one game by his own England coach, Clive Woodward, for punching an opponent off the ball. On three other occasions since the 10-minute sin-bin was introduced in 1997, Johnson has been dispatched, and only once for a technical offence, which was later quashed. Johnson might consider himself lucky his ban was not longer. He might also ponder how many weeks or months he would have spent on the sidelines if any or all of the above incidents had been punished by a sending-off.

Rugby has to decide whether its toleration of violence is acceptable. The game used to revel in tales of the "99" call and players trashing hotels on the 1974 Lions tour. Woodward watched Johnson's punch live on TV, but what he did not see was any reason to drop his captain from the squad that routed Ireland 45-11 last week. Even Saracens – earnest, take-rugby-to-the-masses Saracens – greeted the Johnson-Russell set-to by playing the Rocky theme over the public address. France's coach, Bernard Laporte, aimed for the moral high ground by dropping a lock forward, David Auradou, for an act of foul play, but only for one match. Auradou is free to face either Johnson or his stand-in, Danny Grewcock, this week.

Johnson's defence last Thursday evening was led by barrister Bitu Bhalla, whose chambers acted in the recent Lee Bowyer court case. Richard Smith QC, the Crown Court Recorder who chaired the RFU's three-man disciplinary panel, is a Leeds United supporter. This is the kind of detail that circulates among those whose lot it is to wait seven-and-a-half hours for something to happen.

More than half the wrangling time was spent discussing the challenge to the RFU's jurisdiction, which Leicester have now followed through. Leicester's argument, based on an interpretation of RFU rules, was that "exceptional circumstances" were required to charge Johnson, because his offence was "seen and dealt with" by the referee, and that these did not exist. A different interpretation is that the Union, through its disciplinary officer Robert Horner, was empowered to bring the case under Rule 5.12, which deals with "conduct which is prejudicial to the interests of the Union or the Game". Precedent was set in 1997 when two Newcastle forwards, Nick Popplewell and Dean Ryan, were cited for foul play despite having been penalised during the relevant matches.

The RFU men spent almost three hours in isolation, without the Leicester contingent, before pressing ahead. Horner emphatically denied that he had been swayed either by Johnson's status, or by press coverage, but he did quote the public interest, saying he had received "a significant number" of phone calls, emails and faxes about the incident.

The players' association is backing the referee's role as sole judge of fact – one of rugby's great cornerstones. The RFU and the Premiership have a system of video review and across-the-board consultation, but it all takes place in-house. Dave Pearson, who showed Johnson the yellow card at Saracens, would not be dropped for one mistake, but several referees in recent years have been quietly demoted for repeated poor performance. "The match officials must be supported," Horner said, but he has indicated a move for the Premiership to embrace the existing international variation that says an incident dealt with by the referee can nevertheless be reviewed by a citing commissioner.

In December 2000, the International Rugby Board, established an in-house Legal Department. The IRB's annual report for 2001 referred to "an environment of... a greater likelihood of litigation". The Human Rights Act dictates that appellants must have adequate time to prepare their case, so these things cannot always be rushed. A game for lawyers, or players?

The last word goes to the latter. Phil Vickery, the England prop, said of Paris: "We can't go into a game thinking 'oh dear, we haven't got Jonno'. We will have to take it on the chin." Ha, bloody ha, as Robbie Russell might have said.