Suspended fine leaves Montferrand on alert

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The Independent Online

Olivier Magne and his confrères from the crack French club Montferrand will avoid the attentions of two international captains, Matthew Dawson of England and Budge Pountney of Scotland, when they take on Northampton at Franklin's Gardens in the Heineken Cup on Saturday. They will, however, have the sum of £10,000 hanging over their heads like the Sword of Damocles, having been fined by the board of European Rugby Cup Ltd following a fracas at their own Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin earlier this month.

Montferrand, last season's runners-up in the French championship, finished their Heineken match against Cardiff without the prop Nelio De Sa, the hooker Yves Pedrosa and the No 8 Christophe Dongieu, all of whom had been sin-binned by the Scottish referee Rob Dickson. Even though a home victory was beyond doubt, Dickson's decision-making in the final few minutes infuriated the Clermont-Ferrand public, one of whom grabbed the official as he left the field and, in the words of the ERC disciplinary committee, indulged in a little illicit "finger-twisting".

The committee, under the chairmanship of the Rugby Football Union's community rugby and operations director, Terry Burwell, took a very dim view of the incident and, by suspending the fine until the end of the season, effectively put Montferrand's officials, players and followers on extended trial. "The responsibility for the safety of match officials lies with the clubs and it is essential that officials are protected from physical and verbal abuse," Burwell said. "ERC is committed to ensuring that officials are free to carry out their duties and that the integrity of the tournament is maintained."

Montferrand, whose international contingent includes the current Tricolore outside-half Gerald Merceron and the former Springbok lock Selborne Boome as well as the brilliant loose forward Magne, have until noon tomorrow to appeal. The decision will require more than a little soul-searching. Various clubs have landed themselves in hot water with European rugby administrators in the recent past – Brive, Pontypridd, Stade Français and Castres have all been disciplined for one reason or another – but crowd trouble, albeit minimal in comparison to football, is a first, and there is no guarantee that Montferrand will accept this degree of responsibility for one rogue spectator.

Northampton are struggling to name a fully competitive side for a must-win match in front of a home crowd increasingly uneasy at performance standards this season. Dawson damaged a hamstring during England's Grand Slam misfire in Dublin last Saturday, while Pountney, the club captain, bruised a shoulder during the Midlanders' heavy defeat at Sale on the same day. "Budge will not be fit for this game and it is unclear how long he will be out of action," said John Steele, the Saints' director of rugby. To make matters worse, Pountney's back-row partner, Grant Seely, is also under treatment after turning an ankle.

Cardiff, who face a useful Glasgow outfit at the Arms Park on Saturday, will definitely play their big-name recruit from rugby league, Iestyn Harris, at outside-half. Harris, known in Wales as the "£1m man" after driving a hard bargain before crossing codes, has yet to start a professional game under 15-man rules – he made a 40-minute appearance off the bench during last weekend's defeat at Llanelli – but is nevertheless pressing for a place in the Wales team for the forthcoming internationals with Argentina, Tonga and Australia.

"I enjoyed my 40 minutes at Stradey Park," said Harris yesterday. "I am now looking forward to starting a game. I watched a little Heineken Cup rugby last season and it seems to be the competition everyone in union wants to win." Everyone in union – Welsh union, anyway – also wants him to perform like Barry John, Phil Bennett and Neil Jenkins rolled into one, which adds just a little to the pressure Harris would rather not think about.

Harris' half-back partner will be Rob Howley, who has been confirmed as the Barbarians' captain for next month's midweek match against the Wallabies at the Millennium Stadium.

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