Saracens angered by Johnson's low blow

Saracens 7 Leicester 48
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The Independent Online

Leicester's iron rule of England survived another questionable episode involving their imperial leader. Martin Johnson was sent to the sin bin for punching, and while Saracens both past and present protested that the expulsion should have been permanent, the Tigers then got on with a seven-try demolition job.

It was difficult to believe that Johnson could be any less popular down Watford way after his five-week ban for foul play against Saracens last year, but the two-time Lions skipper added this to his considerable list of achievements. Leicester were mindful that, though winning the Premiership for the last three seasons, in each case they lost their league fixture on this ground. Saracens came into the match badly stung by two recent home defeats in the quarter-finals of the Powergen Cup and the European Shield.

It was a combustible mix, and the Vicarage Road viciousness came to a head 12 minutes into the second half. Johnson had the ball, Robbie Russell decided he wanted it quickly for a Saracens free-kick, and the Scottish international hooker grabbed the Tigers' skipper from behind. In attempting to shake off the much smaller man, Johnson twice flung out an elbow then turned to land an uppercut on his opponent. The combined effect split Russell's skin to the tune of several stitches below the eye.

Dave Pearson, the referee, consulted with a touch judge before dispatching both players for 10 minutes with the yellow card, prompting Saracens' coach, Francois Pienaar, to complain that only Johnson's status as the England captain had saved him from seeing red and a possible suspension with all the attendant repercussions in the Six Nations Championship. The former Saracens No 10, the eminent Wallaby Michael Lynagh, summarising for Sky Television, said that the yellow card was being wrongly employed as a get-out by referees unwilling to apply the ultimate sanction.

Lynagh called Johnson's act "a blatant bit of thuggery" that merited a long ban.

But there can be no ban. All Zurich Premiership matches are reviewed on video within 72 hours by a Rugby Football Union citing officer, but an incident seen and dealt with by a referee is off limits. Only at international level can a citing commissioner "upgrade" a yellow card to a red card, and force further action.

With video tape becoming more prevalent than ear plaster in the modern game, the definition of what a referee has "seen" will come under increasing scrutiny.

Johnson, who called the sin-bin incident "one of those things that happens", is free to lead England against Ireland on Saturday. Three players missing from this match – the Saracens scrum-half Kyran Bracken, and Leicester's Dorian West and Austin Healey – will today join up with the national squad hoping to prove their fitness.

Pienaar is under pressure. The South African described the last month as "the lowest" in his experience, and bemoaned a lack of confidence in a side that, before yesterday, had conceded more tries than any other team in the Premiership.

In adversity, however, Saracens' strong-running centre Tom Shanklin may have played his way into the Wales side to play against France in a Six Nations game in Cardiff this weekend, with the rugby league recruit Iestyn Harris believed to be under pressure for his place.

Saracens: Try Walshe; Conversion De Beer. Leicester: Tries Back, Goode, Smith, Kafer, Murphy, Tuilagi, Booth; Conversions Goode 5; Penalty Goode.

Saracens: A Winnan; T Shanklin, K Sorrell, T Horan, D O'Mahony (G Arasa, 63); J de Beer, N Walshe; D Flatman, R Russell (M Cairns, 65), P Durant (L Harbut, 78), A Benazzi (capt, S Hooper, 63), S Murray, K Chesney, R Hill, T Roques.

Leicester: G Murphy; S Booth, O Smith (G Gelderbloom, 72), R Kafer, F Tuilagi; A Goode, J Hamilton (J Grindal, 65); G Rowntree, R Cockerill (G Chuter, 63), D Garforth (R Nebbett, 71), M Johnson (capt), B Kay (L Deacon, 65), J Kronfeld, M Corry (W Johnson, h-t), N Back (L Moody, 63).

Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).