England made further unwanted headlines when they suspended two coaches for illegally swapping match balls, as the Rugby World Cup prepared for the make-or-break last round of pool matches.
Kicking coach Dave Alred and strength and conditioning staffer Paul Stridgeon were reprimanded and barred from Auckland’s Eden Park stadium for Saturday’s game against Scotland following the incident last week.
The two admitted switching balls used for conversions by Jonny Wilkinson rather than the one used to score the tries, which is against rugby rules, during England’s 67-3 win in Dunedin against Romania. They were warned twice by referee Romain Poite.
“Two members of the team management, David Alred and Paul Stridgeon, mistakenly thought that there was an issue with some of the match balls,” said a statement from England’s Rugby Football Union (RFU).
“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 incident followed an uncharacteristically wobbly start to the tournament by the usually reliable Wilkinson, who has landed just 38 per cent of his penalties so far.
Wilkinson insisted the controversy had not been a distraction as England build up to Saturday’s pool-deciding clash with arch-rivals Scotland, with both teams trying to book quarter-final berths.
“You’d be surprised that it doesn’t impact upon the rugby side of things. There’s two sides of life when you’re out here, you’re on the field and off the field,” he said.
England have had to deal with a number of untoward incidents including stories about centre Mike Tindall, who was seen embracing a blonde woman at a dwarf-throwing contest just weeks after marrying royal heir Zara Phillips.
And lock Courtney Lawes became the first player to be suspended at the World Cup after kneeing Argentina hooker Mario Ledesma in the head during a tackle.
Johnson was disappointed the ball-swapping incident occurred but said it was time to move forward.
“It’s unfortunate that 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 move on,” Johnson said.