ENGLAND, no strangers to disciplinary trauma at World Cup tournaments, landed slap-bang in another fine mess when the simmering issue over Jonny Wilkinson's kicking strategy against Romania in Dunedin last weekend boiled over unexpectedly. The former champions banned two of their back-room staff, the assistant coach Dave Alred and the fitness coach Paul Stridgeon, from playing any role during the big game against Scotland in a belated and rather desperate attempt to bring the matter to a close.
Officials from the International Rugby Board agreed to lay things to rest, serene in the knowledge that the England camp had suffered another of their occasional public humiliations. A spokesman said the governing body had accepted assurances that England would "abide by both the laws and the spirit of the game going forward" before warning that any further breaches would be "dealt with severely". Given that England are due to host the next global gathering in 2015, the embarrassment is considerable.
Under Clive Woodward's stewardship, England were fined during the 2003 tournament in Australia for contriving to play a few seconds of their pool fixture against Samoa with 16 men on the field, rather than the customary 15.
Last week's offence was not quite so blatant: Wilkinson twice sought to take a conversion with a ball different from the one used to score a try - acts that flew directly in the face of regulations, as printed in every rugby law book currently in use.
After the game, the England manager Martin Johnson claimed his outside-half had merely attempted to swap a defective ball for one in acceptable condition, but IRB officials indicated that the goalkicker was attempting to take all his kicks with one particular numbered ball.
While tournament organisers spent the following few days suggesting that no action would be taken, some IRB members were keen to see the matter pursued. The England camp were asked to clarify their position. Less than 24 hours later, they decided to take action against Alred, the man who works most closely with Wilkinson and spent the Romania match on touchline duty, and Stridgeon, whose job it was to provide the outside-half with the preferred ball.
According to the Rugby Football Union, the governing body of the game in England, both Alred and Stridgeon "mistakenly thought there was an issue with some of the match balls" and "took it upon themselves" to substitute them. "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 union added in a formal statement. For his part, Johnson described the incident as "unfortunate".
As a result of this "misfortune", neither Alred not Stridgeon will be allowed into Eden Park, the biggest stadium in New Zealand, for tomorrow's match. The decision means Stridgeon will not be present to oversee the pre-match warm-up. More importantly, Wilkinson will have to prepare without any input from Alred, the man who has shaped and reshaped his kicking style over the last decade and is one of the outside-half's principal mentors.
Questioned about the issue before news of the action against Alred emerged, Wilkinson was unusually uncomfortable. "I'm not going to comment on it," he said, before slipping into accidental pun territory by adding: "I know the IRB are looking into it and it's not a place I want to put my foot right now." He then insisted that he had not been distracted by talk of possible disciplinary action. "You'd be surprised," he remarked. "It doesn't impact. There are two sides to life: when you're on the field and when you're off it - and 'off' is about relaxing and getting away from things. This doesn't fit into either category."
In truth, this is hardly the most heinous crime ever committed by an international rugby team. Even so, it puts England in a bad light - sharp practice is not popular, either amongst tournament officials or supporters - and there are certain to be lingering questions over Wilkinson's own role in the affair. In addition, there are suspicions that England have pulled this kind of stunt on previous occasions. Never the most revered team in Test rugby, they are in bad odour once again. Just at the wrong moment, too.