Woodward annoyed by player ticket distractions

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The Independent Online

Six days ago, Clive Woodward promised a distraction-free preparation for England's Six Nations' Championship match with Wales at Twickenham this weekend; since when, there have been six days of discord, disturbance and disorder. The coach was not especially put out by the bitterly frustrated Neil Back's public rant over being dropped from the team - "I'm not here to organise people's retirement parties," said Woodward, with a dismissive shrug of the shoulders - but he was very definitely annoyed at the growing row over black-market ticket sales involving members of his squad.

Six days ago, Clive Woodward promised a distraction-free preparation for England's Six Nations' Championship match with Wales at Twickenham this weekend; since when, there have been six days of discord, disturbance and disorder. The coach was not especially put out by the bitterly frustrated Neil Back's public rant over being dropped from the team - "I'm not here to organise people's retirement parties," said Woodward, with a dismissive shrug of the shoulders - but he was very definitely annoyed at the growing row over black-market ticket sales involving members of his squad.

Ben Cohen, the Northampton wing, was disciplined after Twickenham officials discovered that one of his allocated tickets for the recent game with Ireland had ended up in the wrong hands. Yesterday, two of the younger members of the Test squad - Olly Barkley, the Bath outside-half, and Matt Stevens, a front-row forward from the same club - were identified by Woodward as having made similar "errors of judgement". While the Rugby Football Union insisted Cohen had not sold his ticket for profit, no such mitigation was entered on behalf of his colleagues. However, they too are likely to escape serious punishment.

"I've had a chat with all the players about this issue, and they are under no illusions as to what is happening at Twickenham in terms of a clamp-down on this sort of activity," Woodward said. "These players have not been out touting tickets, but they are responsible for where their tickets go and some of them have been found where they shouldn't have been found. The people concerned have admitted their errors, and have had their allocation withdrawn for the rest of the season. If it happens again, it will be outside of my control. Jeff Blackett [the RFU's disciplinary officer] would then be involved, and the consequences would be very serious."

The RFU recently reached a formal agreement with three official providers of hospitality packages - one of them run by Mike Burton, the former England prop who had long been among the most successful wheeler-dealers on the rugby scene - in an attempt to curb the black market trade. Tickets belonging to Barkley and Stevens are thought to have been purchased by other ex-international players linked to unofficial providers. As both official and unofficial operators are habitually charging upwards of £1,000 for a £50 ticket, there will almost certainly be a review of the system over the summer.

"We set high standards in everything we do, and the England players have behaved impeccably in every corner of the world," Woodward said defensively. He must, however, know that this week's revelations are merely the tip of the iceberg. Most, if not all, the England players make money from ticket transactions; some pool their tickets and sell to the highest bidder, just as their amateur-era predecessors did throughout the post-war period. "It's been going on for years, if not centuries," admitted the coach. "But it should not be part and parcel of the professional game, and the players have now been told: don't do anything daft."

Woodward said Barkley and Stevens had not been dropped from the squad for Saturday's game with Wales because of ticket misdemeanours, but because two experienced World Cup winners - Mike Catt of Bath and the Leicester prop Julian White - were up and running after injury. Similarly, he said Back was out of the frame for no other reason than that three loose forwards, four including the replacement Joe Worsley, had been picked ahead of him.

Back used his column in a national newspaper to question the way he had been treated by Woodward since playing every minute of the World Cup knock-out stage in Australia last November, but the coach was having none of it. "I understand Neil's disappointment, but 99 per cent of the news I've given him down the years has been good news. A player has to cop the other one per cent. Neil is not involved because other people have been selected on merit."

By recalling White to the match-day squad with almost indecent haste - the tight-head specialist, regarded as the most formidable scrummager in England, has not played a serious competitive match for Leicester this year - Woodward clearly signalled his intention to confront the Welsh up front, where rugby hurts the most. Wales were comprehensively dismantled at the set-piece by France 10 days ago, and it is an odds-on bet that the 18st Devonian will be introduced off the bench during the second half of this weekend's game.

"When the Welsh are operating off a good forward platform, they play very well indeed," Woodward said. "When you disrupt that platform, they're not the same team. The scrum is an area of our game that must function on Saturday. Fortunately, the result against Ireland has put us under pressure - and we play better when the pressure is on, when there is some sulphur in the air."

Ireland, meanwhile, have made one change to the side that ended England's 22-match unbeaten run at Twickenham: a change that strengthens them immeasurably. Geordan Murphy, whose unique brand of attacking running is among the wonders of this sporting age, will face Italy in Dublin on Saturday, six months after suffering a compound fracture of his leg during a World Cup warm-up match. He replaces the Ulsterman, Tyrone Howe, on the left wing.

IRELAND TEAM

G Dempsey (Leinster); S Horgan (Leinster), G D'Arcy (Leinster), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), G Murphy (Leicester); R O'Gara (Munster), P Stringer (Munster); R Corrigan (Leinster), S Byrne (Leinster), J Hayes (Munster), M O'Kelly (Leinster), P O'Connell (Munster), S Easterby (Llanelli Scarlets), K Gleeson (Leinster), A Foley (Munster). Replacements: F Sheahan (Munster), M Horan (Munster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), V Costello (Leinster), G Easterby (Rotherham), D Humphreys (Ulster), K Maggs (Bath).

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