Robinson blow has England on knees

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The Independent Online

Just when they thought it could not get any worse, it did. It is clearly not enough that the England head coach Andy Robinson has to deal with three Six Nations Championship defeats on the trot. Yesterday England lost their third captain in quick succession when Jason Robinson was ruled out of the rest of the tournament after suffering a torn ligament in his right thumb.

Just when they thought it could not get any worse, it did. It is clearly not enough that the England head coach Andy Robinson has to deal with three Six Nations Championship defeats on the trot. Yesterday England lost their third captain in quick succession when Jason Robinson was ruled out of the rest of the tournament after suffering a torn ligament in his right thumb.

Then the coach learned that his comments about the South African referee Jonathan Kaplan after the 19-13 defeat by Ireland in Dublin last Sunday are to be investigated by the Rugby Football Union's disciplinary officer, Jeff Blackett.

With English rugby down on its proverbial knees, there was another kick awaiting at Twickenham with the news that Blackett is also to investigate comments made to a national newspaper about Kaplan's handling of the Ireland match by Colin High, the RFU's élite referee manager.

Amid all this came news from Twickenham that no formal complaint would be made to the International Rugby Board about Kaplan's officiating at Lansdowne Road. Instead the authorities will include their observations on the matter on the official IRB form provided for every match.

Bizarrely, Jason Robinson is the third player to be afflicted with a thumb injury on the same weekend in this season's tournament, following the Wales captain Gareth Thomas - who suffered multiple fractures to his thumb against France in Paris - and Ireland's centre Shane Horgan.

The captain's absence as a player might not be seen as too bad a blow, since he has been struggling with his form of late and England can move Wasps' Josh Lewsey to full-back and recall the Northampton wing Ben Cohen, one of the World Cup winners of 2003.

But the England management, and more importantly the players, have been more than happy with the Sale player's leadership on and off the field. Furthermore, his enforced absence means that England have now lost three captains since the start of the season - Lawrence Dallaglio having retired from Test rugby and his replacement Jonny Wilkinson having succumbed to injury before Robinson's appointment.

The England hierarchy cannot even turn to three other previously leading candidates, since the Bath centre Mike Tindall, Saracens flanker Richard Hill and Gloucester prop Phil Vickery are also injured.

The lock Ben Kay and No 8 Martin Corry are now leading contenders but a change of captain is the last thing any coach wants midway through an intense championship such as this. The squad's morale will not have been helped either by the Kaplan affair.

Although he did not accuse the referee of costing England the game outright, Andy Robinson might be deemed to have been in breach of the IRB's code of conduct, which prohibits public criticism of match officials.

Robinson was reported to have said: "I think only one side was refereed." But his defence could argue that he did not specify which side had benefited and which had suffered.

Blackett said of the double investigation yesterday: "At the moment it is a matter of gathering evidence, and I have to look at all the things alleged to have been said and then decide whether or not action should be taken. I want to get this out of the way before the next international." That is on 12 March.

Robinson can draw some comfort from the fact that when Sir Clive Woodward criticised the Welsh referee Nigel Williams for sending off the lock Simon Shaw against New Zealand in Auckland last June he escaped any punishment, as Blackett decided there was no case to answer. He did remind the England team management about the code of conduct.

Were Robinson to be found guilty he could face a touchline ban, or at least a changing-room ban on match days, since he usually sits in the stand. He might get away with issuing an apology to Kaplan, especially since his comments pale next to what High had to say.

Among his criticisms High was reported as saying: "The [Brian] O'Driscoll try should never have been given because Shane Horgan was quite clearly offside when he made the tackle and set up the platform for the Irish attack. It's all very well the referee saying he didn't see it but ... Horgan is 6ft 4in tall - the one green jersey among all the white jerseys. He stood out like an elephant in a chorus line."

And later on: "Jonathan Kalan is in the top 20 in the world but that wasn't an international performance. It would not have been acceptable in the Zurich Premiership. If one of my referees had done that I would have had my backside kicked for making the appointment."

Chris Spice, the RFU's performance director and High's immediate boss said: "We've all got to operate within the code of conduct."

The publication of High's criticisms had one ironic touch, in that High, Spice and Phil Winstanley - Premier Rugby's rugby manager - are policing the Premiership to make sure directors of rugby, coaches and players do not criticise referees in the media.

To that end, at around the time High's comments were being read an e-mail was winging its way to the Premiership clubs reminding them, in the sternest possible language, that any criticism of match officials in the media would not be tolerated under any circumstances and would attract severe punishment.

LEADERSHIP CONTENDERS: FOUR IN THE FRAME

BEN KAY

Club: Leicester
Age 29
Caps 38
Position Lock

The favourite. Has been preferred in the Six Nations so far to Bath's Steve Borthwick, once a contender for the captaincy, and his rediscovered form has kept his place entirely secure. The pack leader, he ran England's line-out in the World Cup and has a fine brain for the game.

MARTIN CORRY

Club Leicester
Age 31
Caps 35
Position No 8

Second favourite. Captained Bristol before moving to Leicester. Reads a game well and the back row is not a bad position for a captain. Has a phenomenal work rate in attack and defence and, like his fellow Tiger and former Test captain Martin Johnson, he leads by example.

STEVE THOMPSON

Club Northampton
Age 26
Caps 37
Position Hooker

Something of an outsider, though he is captain at Northampton. Leadership from the front row is not that easy, since too often the job is "head down". Also, the captain has to be assured of his place in the side and Thompson's form has dipped a trifle of late.

MATT DAWSON

Club Wasps
Age 32
Caps 68
Position No 9

The only player in the squad with any experience - nine matches under Sir Clive Woodward, four wins, five defeats - and scrum-half is a good place to lead from. But his falling out with Andy Robinson and dropping for the autumn Tests leaves him an outside chance.

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