A big Heineken Cup match between Gloucester and Munster is quite combustible enough, without Chris Fortey pouring the odd gallon of petrol on the flames. It may therefore be in the best interests of public order that the Gloucester hooker, who happily counts himself among the more aggressive members of an unusually physical forward pack, will miss this Saturday's little tête à tête at Kingsholm after being suspended for a week by a Rugby Football Union tribunal charged with picking the bones out of a brief but meaningful bout of fisticuffs in the Premiership game with Harlequins shortly after Christmas.
Both Fortey and Jim Evans, the 23-year-old Quins lock, were dismissed for their part in the fracas, and both were up before the RFU's chief disciplinary officer, Jeff Blackett, and his fellow beaks, Jonathan Dance and Peter Trunkfield, yesterday. They received a seven-day ban apiece - a fairly lenient sentence, given the three-week norm for punching and fighting offences - and are ruled out of this weekend's European activity.
Quins, who travel to the French First Division team Montauban in the second round of the Parker Pen Challenge Cup, will not be unduly concerned at losing Evans, despite their shortage of second-row cover. The tie is over two legs and the Londoners are certainly strong enough to deal with Montauban, who have lost five of their seven championship matches to date and are among the favourites to be relegated.
Gloucester will be less pleased, and with good reason. The home match against Munster is one of the pivotal fixtures of their season - defeat would seriously threaten their chances of qualifying for the knock-out stage of the tournament - and Fortey is, or was, the only front-rank hooker available to them. Having lost the French international Olivier Azam to Montferrand at the end of last season, they are left with Paul Johnstone, an occasional prop at best, and the inexperienced Chris Collins, who has only two Premiership appearances under his belt. As Johnston is struggling for fitness, there may even be a bench place for young Rob Elloway, who has made two fewer appearances than Collins - that is to say, none at all.
Saturday's match has fun and games written all over it. In last season's Heineken Cup, Gloucester lorded it over the Irishmen at Kingsholm and were odds-on to secure a home tie in the last eight until they shipped 33 points in the return match in Limerick and disappeared from the competition altogether. By way of added spice, this meeting reunites Duncan McRae and Ronan O'Gara, the principal protagonists in one of the bloodier incidents of the 2001 Lions tour of Australia. McRae, who joined Gloucester from New South Wales in the autumn, was sent off for pinning O'Gara to the floor and punching him more than a dozen times.
Across the water in France, the national union has announced a review of Bernard Laporte's coaching set-up at the end of the Six Nations' Championship. Laporte, the head coach, has agreed a four-year extension to his contract, taking him through to the 2007 World Cup. The positions of his principal lieutenants are less secure, however. Jacques Brunel and Bernard Vivies, the assistant coaches, will almost certainly be replaced if the Tricolores go badly over the next two and a half months, as will Dave Ellis, the defensive coach, and Daniel Servais, the fitness specialist.
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