Time for the sin-bin to be shown the red card

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The Independent Online

Second-row forwards, now known as locks, tend to come in two categories. There are big bullies, and there are gentle giants. There is no bottle of champagne for correctly naming the group to which Martin Johnson belongs.

But there is also a third class to which all forwards may aspire, together with the occasional scrum half: the professional villain, the perpetrator of dangerous or dirty play on the blind side of scrum, ruck or maul – in this context, the side where the referee is absent. He is less common than he used to be, at any rate at the higher levels of rugby union football. The game is faster, the referee has the touch judges or linesmen to help him and, not least, television can show and endlessly replay kicks or punches.

Johnson is not a villain. One reason why he does not fall into this company is that his misdeeds are so obvious. Full of indignation, he will swing at opponents like a British heavyweight hope of the 1940s. Sometimes he makes contact, as he did with Robbie Russell, the Saracens hooker, who needed six stitches and whose injury is the cause of the most recent dispute.

Nor does he confine himself to his fists. Last season it was his knee which broke several of the Saracens outside-half's ribs. In short – and to avoid reading out a list of previous convictions which would take up the rest of this column – Johnson has form as long as your arm.

There is undoubtedly a tendency for referees to pick on such players or, if you prefer to put it slightly differently, to keep a close watch on their activities. Paul Ringer, the Welsh flanker in 1978-80, had the reputation of being a villain which was not entirely unjustified. Against England at Twickenham he was sent off in the opening minutes of the match for an allegedly late and high tackle on John Horton, the outside-half. Some good judges thought he was merely trying to charge down Horton's kick, but there we are. Off Ringer stayed.

It is difficult to understand why the referee in the Saracens v Leicester match, Dave Pearson, did not follow the same course with Johnson and show him the red rather than the yellow card. With every week that passes I become increasingly convinced that the introduction of the sin-bin was a mistake. I believe the game would be better with no intermediate stage between penalty kicks and sending-off, with the qualification that more offences than at present would be followed by an indirect free kick rather than a shot at goal.

Whether a player is penalised and allowed to stay on the field or penalised and sent off for 10 minutes is a lottery. The harsh treatment given to Scott Quinnell in the Wales v France match is an illustration of this truth. The Welsh captain was shown the yellow card for a late tackle which, at 19-odd stones, he could scarcely have avoided making, being no Gerald Davies despite his many other admirable qualities.

Johnson's case was different. There is no doubt whatever in my mind that he should have been sent off. The referee, however, adopted a more lenient course. That was his decision and his prerogative. He, after all, was there. He may well have taken account of the provocation to which Johnson claims he had previously been subjected.

The Leicester officials, including Dean Richards and Peter Wheeler, claim that "exceptional circumstances'' are required to charge Johnson because his admitted offence was "seen and dealt with by the referee''. They say the Rugby Football Union should not have tried the case at all and imposed a three-week ban on the player.

The union may, I suppose, reply that Johnson is captain of England and has a long history of hitting people – that these constitutes these special circumstances. Alternatively, these considerations may bring Johnson's action within the scope of "conduct which is prejudicial to the interest of the Union or the Game''.

I have no idea whether the RFU will use these arguments at the appeal, which is to take place after Saturday's France v England match, so enabling Johnson to appear in Paris. Still less am I saying that I agree with them. The authorities knew perfectly well what Johnson's inclinations were when they made him – or allowed him to be made – captain. It is a bit like a bird-watcher who acquires a cat and then complains when the new household pet starts to catch birds.

Altogether these Rumpolish proceedings after the event are doing no good to anyone except the gentlemen with briefcases and expensive striped suits. The referee should have punished Johnson more severely at Vicarage Road. He failed to do so, and the matter should now be left at that.