Fans clamoured to social networking sites on Friday to condemn the leniency of Rugby World Cup organisers toward England after its admissions that two coaches illegally switched balls for conversion attempts during last week’s pool match against Romania.
England’s Rugby Football Union stepped in to suspend kicking coach Dave Alred and fitness coach Paul Stridgeon from Saturday’s match against Scotland. The self-imposed sanction was accepted by Rugby World Cup Limited as punishment enough.
Debate around the issue became inflamed when it emerged that Cup organisers fined Samoa winger Alesana Tuilagi $10 000 for wearing a mouthguard made by a company which is not a tournament sponsor.
Fans bridled at what they perceived as inequity between the decision not to impose a penalty on England, one of the rugby world’s richest nations, but to fine a Samoa squad which had to call on public donations just to fund its World Cup campaign.
Accusations of double standards and of favouritism toward the northern hemisphere abounded and some fans called for southern hemisphere nations to quit the International Rugby Board and form their own world body.
The IRB defended its decisions, saying the 20 teams competing at the World Cup had been warned repeatedly of the consequences of using non-approved equipment.
“Rugby World Cup Limited has proactively worked with participating unions to educate the key principles of the Rugby World Cup 2011 terms of participation,” the IRB said in a statement
While Tuilagi’s seemed a technical breach of sponsorship and ambush marketing rules, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) accepted Alred and Stridgeon acted “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 said in a statement.
At his pre-match news conference Friday, England team manager Martin Johnson said the episode hadn’t really been a distraction for the players despite the close public scrutiny.
“They’ve just got on with getting ready for the match,” he told reporters at Eden Park, Auckland. “Paul [Stridgeon] and David [Alred] did what they did in the heat and confusion of a Test match.
“They should have asked the referee, we should have asked the referee. We didn’t. They asked us to stop. We did.”
Johnson thought the sanctions were tough.
“I don’t suspend guys lightly. They’re going to miss the game, which is a big blow for them,” he said. “We regret what we did and it was wrong. We’ve taken the action that we’ve taken and we get on with it.
“In the pressure of a World Cup these things can happen.”
In 2003 when Johnson was captain, England’s triumphant World Cup campaign could have been derailed after the team briefly fielded 16 men in the pool victory over Samoa.
England escaped a points deduction after facing a disciplinary hearing in Sydney.
England’s handling of the latest issue was applauded on Friday by Wales’ New Zealand-born coach Warren Gatland.
“They have been very professional in the way they [the RFU] have dealt with it. They realised there was an issue, suspended a couple of staff and pretty much kept the IRB out of it,” he said.
Others, including Scotland goalkicker Chris Paterson, talked about the difficulty of adapting to the new ball at the tournament, but declined to discuss the matter at the heart of the issue: England’s attempt to sidestep the rules.
‘Shame on you’
Fairfax media commentator Duncan Johnstone led a chorus of outrage at the apparent disparity between the penalties imposed on England and Samoa.
“Swapping balls for a conversion is breaking the rules,” he said. “England attempted that not once, but twice during their big win over Romania. It was blatant and the IRB even acknowledged that … “
On Twitter, on Facebook and in forums on news websites, fans left no doubt that they saw the IRB’s rulings as inconsistent.
“Do not pay that fine Samoa. Shame on you England,” one fan posted on the Fairfax news website.
New Zealand TV news anchor John Campbell called for public donations to pay Samoa’s fine and conducted a public barbecue to raise money. Hundreds rallied around to help out, some reportedly paying hundreds of dollars for a sausage.
“Talk about double standards. I would happily contribute to Samoa’s 10K fine,” one fan posted. Another said “Shame on the IRB. Where can we help donate to help pay for this?” — Sapa-AP