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Rugby Union: Johnson cleared to tackle French.

Byline: Andrew Baldock

Martin Johnson will captain England in next Saturday's crunch Lloyds TSB Six Nations clash against France, despite the spectre of suspension hanging over him.

Johnson is free to play in the potential title showdown because an appeal against his contentious Rugby Football Union disciplinary hearing will not be heard this week.

He was banned for 21 days by a three-man RFU panel following his punch on Scottish international hooker Robbie Russell during a Premiership game between Leicester and Saracens a fortnight ago.

Within 24 hours of that sentence being announced, though, Leicester lodged an appeal against the hearing's jurisdiction and under RFU guidelines, any suspension does not take effectuntil an appeal has been held. 'As a result of logistical considerations, it has not been possible to hold the appeal this week, but we expect to announce the date for it shortly,' said RFU president Roy Manock.

England boss Clive Woodward immediately responded by confirming that Johnson would win his 66th cap at the Stade de France. 'I have decided that Martin will play and captain the side,' Woodward said.

'I made my views clear on the disciplinary issue when I selected Martin to play against Ireland and if the appeal had been held this week, then he would not have played.

'I will accept the decision of the appeal panel, but until that time, we must now concentrate on preparing the team to play France and I will comment further on selection at tomorrow's team announcement.'

Given that some four hours of Johnson's disciplinary hearing in a Bristol hotel last Thursday were consumed by legal arguments, the appeal promises to be a lengthy and detailed affair.

'We wish to reiterate that the appeal has been lodged as a matter of principle against the jurisdiction of the RFU disciplinary committee, not against the sentence itself, or to make Martin available for certain fixtures,' said Leicester rugby director Dean Richards.

France lock Olivier Brouzet, cautioned for throwing a punch while playing for Northampton at Leicester on Saturday, looks set to play for Les Bleus.

France manager Jo Maso, who has previously taken a strong line on discipline, said: 'Many people thought that the caution was severe. Olivier tried to separate one of his team-mates and a Leicester player. For me, this was not an undisciplined gesture.'

Xavier Garbajosa and Thibault Privat have pulled out of Saturday's clash. Toulouse winger Garbajosa, who has a thigh strain, will be replaced by Montferrand's Jimmy Merlu. Privat picked up a knee injury playing for Beziers against Montauban over the weekend but Laporte has decided not to call up a replacement.

Johnson was sin-binned by referee David Pearson following a flare-up that left Russell requiring six stitches to a cut beneath his left eye. RFU disciplinary officer Robert Horner still summoned Johnson and a panel chaired by Richard Smith QC was given the authority to decide whether his yellow card had been sufficient punishment.

Smith, RFU senior vice-president Derek Morgan and RFU council member Richard Moon accepted Johnson's guilty plea, but told him that it had been a 'gratuitous' act of foul play.

There is now concern about a dangerous precedent being created in that Johnson was dealt with by Pearson, yet still found himself appearing before a disciplinary panel.

The Professional Rugby Players' Association and Premier Rugby Partnership have already joined Leicester in voicing their disapproval but while Johnson now concentrates on trying to put the episode temporarily behind him, an angry reaction can be expected from across the Channel.

French coach Bernard Laporte, who said Johnson should not have played against Ireland pending his original hearing, is a renowned disciplinarian, having dropped players on more than one occasion this season after they received yellow cards in club games.

Should Johnson's appeal be thrown out, his suspension will start from whenever the hearing is held, raising the possibility that he could miss the visit of Wales to Twickenham on March 23.

Charlie Hodgson and Lewis Moody were last night ruled out of Saturday's match. Both players, who were likely to be on the replacements' bench, picked up injuries during Premiership games over the weekend.
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Feb 26, 2002
Words:691
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