Thursday, 29 September 2011

England's latest balls-up at RWC2011 sees mystery man Dave Alred banned

Dave Alred, the enigmatic brain behind the boot of Jonny Wilkinson, has been banned from entering Eden Park when England face Scotland in Auckland on Saturday - after being found guilty of “ball tampering”.

No, this isn’t the Cricket World Cup, it’s rugby’s great showpiece – and England have been told they will be thrown out of the tournament in New Zealand if they attempt to switch balls again.

Alred and conditioning coach Paul Stridgeon will both have to stay in the team hotel for the make-of-break clash against the old enemy. Both men have been found guilty of switching balls for Wilkinson in the comfortable win over Romania last Saturday.

Alred, a former kicker for the Minnesota Vikings in the American NFL, spends at least at least two hours a day kicking with Wilkinson, rain or shine, and is worried about his bootiful charge’s current form. The pair have developed a close relationship which verges on the obsessive - as the current storm suggests.

Alred, who has also been used to help the kicking of England football goalkeeper David James and others, rarely comments in public and was not put up for interview as the England camp responded to the “Ballgate” controversy.

A RWC Ltd investigation revealed Alred and Stridgeon changed balls illegally before two conversions taken by Wilkinson in Dunedin. On neither occasion did England request permission for the switch from referee Romain Poite. Video evidence shows the try-scoring ball being kicked away before Wilko is given the “better” ball to use for the conversion.

Rugby World Cup regulations insist the try-scoring ball must be used but Alred felt that one of the eight numbered balls was “better for kicking” and ensured Wilko used that ball for his kicks. At half-time, the England management were warned to stop tampering.

The English RFU took swift action against Stridgeon and Alred – widely considered to be the key to Wilkinson’s World Cup-winning heroics in 2003 – ensuring that Wilko and team boss Martin Johnson will not need to give evidence in a possible misconduct hearing.

The RFU admitted: “Two management members took it upon themselves to substitute balls during the match in contravention of both the laws and spirit of the game. This suspension means that they will not be able to be in the stadium for the next match in any capacity.

"The RFU fully accepts that the action of those team management members was incorrect. 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. "

After the RFU’s statement, the RWC responded: "We accept the RFU's assurances that it will abide by both the laws and the spirit of the game going forward. However, it must be pointed out that any similar breaches in future will be dealt with severely.”

England, under pressure off the field after Mike Tindall’s dwarf-throwing antics, have already been in hot water with RWC officials for having shirt numbers which peeled off in the edgy opening win against Argentina.

And lock Courtney Lawes became the first player to be suspended at this World Cup after kneeing Argentina hooker Mario Ledesma in the head during a tackle. The latest controversy will not make the Red Rose any more popular as England bid for a record third consecutive World Cup final appearance.

Johnson made three changes to his team yesterday in the build-up to that final Group B game against Scotland in Auckland on Saturday – but kept fellow 2003 hero Wilko at fly-half ahead of Toby Flood.

England can afford to lose but only if they avoid defeat by seven and take a losing bonus point. A win would see Johnson’s men play France in the quarter-finals, with a semi against Ireland or Wales.

Johnson, adopting a approach similar to the one he used over the furore surrounding Tindall early in the tournament, said: "It is unfortunate we have had to take this action but ultimately there was a breach of the laws of the game. It's happened, some action has been taken and we have to move on."

Wilkinson, who struggled with his kicking beneath the roof against Argentina, missing a record five attempts, said: "I'm not going to comment on 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.

“The Scotland game means so much to this team, this squad. That’s why it feels so tense."

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