England duo banned over ball switch

Alex Lowe,Pa
Thursday 29 September 2011 11:16 BST

Two key members of Martin Johnson's senior management team were suspended by the Rugby Football Union today after England found themselves embroiled in another World Cup cheat storm.

Jonny Wilkinson's mentor Dave Alred and fitness specialist Paul Stridgeon were found to have illegally switched balls during England's 67-3 victory over Romania last Saturday.

Both Alred, the kicking coach, and Stridgeon have been banned from entering Eden Park for Saturday's decisive Pool B showdown with Scotland.

The RFU were forced to act on 'ballgate' after England became the subject of a misconduct investigation by Rugby World Cup Limited (RWCL).

Alred and Stridgeon were found to have switched the ball Wilkinson was due to kick with on a number of occasions, without requesting permission from referee Romain Poite.

An RFU statement read: "Those team management members took it upon themselves to substitute balls during the match in contravention of both the laws of the game and the spirit of the game.

"The RFU fully accepts that the action of those team management members was incorrect and detrimental to the image of the tournament, the game and to English rugby.

"The RFU has therefore decided to reprimand those team management members, to warn them as to their future conduct and to suspend them from participation in England's next game, the match between England and Scotland."

RWCL confirmed England will face no further sanctions, having been satisfied with the RFU's response - even though it meant no official questions were asked about how much Wilkinson or Johnson knew.

Immediately after the match, Johnson said he had not been aware of the issue at the time England were warned by Poite to "desist". Wilkinson left the stadium without commenting.

Johnson said today: "If we feel a ball is not 100% we'll ask for it to be changed.

"You have to ask the referee. If he says 'yes', you can. If he says 'no', you can't.

"We didn't ask him. It's unfortunate we have had to take this action but ultimately there was a breach of the laws of the game.

"But it's happened, some action has been taken, and we have to move on."

Eight years ago, England's triumphant World Cup campaign could have been derailed after they briefly fielded 16 men in the pool victory over Samoa.

England were hauled before a disciplinary hearing in Sydney and narrowly escaped a points deduction.

But they were fined £10,000 and had fitness coach Dave Reddin banned for two matches for a verbal altercation with fourth official Steve Walsh.

This latest brush with authority comes after an eventful World Cup campaign for England, which has seen Johnson face down criticism over his players' conduct on a drunken night out in Queenstown.

England also became the first team to have a player suspended, after Courtney Lawes was found guilty of striking Argentina hooker Mario Ledesma with his knee.

Wilkinson refused to comment on the ball-switch issue today - but he believes England are stronger for all the challenges they have faced.

England must beat Scotland on Saturday to be sure of qualifying for the World Cup quarter-finals.

Speaking before the RFU had publicly announced the suspensions, Wilkinson said: "I'm not going to comment on that (the ball-switch issue). It's not a place I want to put my foot right now.

"Whatever we have been through has brought us as close as we can possibly be and we know the direction we want to go.

"I look at the guys in the squad now and when they are training and when they are around the hotel, you can tell just by looking at them that they are desperate to be there, they are desperate to do well, desperate to do anything that can help the other guys around them to get through.

"It's now time to try and walk the walk as opposed to talk about it."

Wilkinson missed five consecutive penalty kicks against Argentina and his strike rate is 50%, which has brought the quality of the World Cup balls into question.

Although England have been using the current Gilbert ball since the autumn of 2010, World Cup regulations state the match balls are to be used for the first time in the captain's run on the eve of the game.

As a result, some balls are not as 'kicked-in' as players would like, meaning they can be too hard and therefore difficult to control.

Johnson said that Wilkinson found some of the balls in the Romania game to be "less than perfect". Wilkinson insisted the RFU's investigation has not been a distraction to him ahead of the Scotland game.

"It doesn't impact on that side of things," he said.

"In terms of preparations this week we have had a good first three and half days. I was out there this morning smashing them around and feeling very happy about where we are," he said.

"That's the way we've wanted it to be all World Cup. We feel very good about it."

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