England face test of nerve over ballgate controversy


ENGLAND will go into their most important and fiercely contested match in four years tomorrow engulfed in controversy for the second time in this eventful World Cup campaign.

National team chiefs yesterday took the unusual step of banning two of their own staff – assistant coach and kicking supremo Dave Alred and fitness coach Paul Stridgeon – for the Pool B decider against Scotland.

The move came after the pair were investigated by World Cup organisers for appearing to switch balls for conversions during last week’s resounding win over Romania, and heads off any further action.

Rules state that the same ball touched down for a try must be used for the subsequent kick, but Alred and Stridgeon were accused of trying to select specific balls for England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson in Dunedin.

‘Ballgate’, as it has been dubbed, is the second storm to hit the England camp during just four weeks in New Zealand, after a visit to a Queenstown bar prompted lurid headlines and allegations about the behaviour of vice-captain Mike Tindall. A trio of victories has calmed that tempest and carried them to the brink of the quarter-finals, but the latest fiasco will have deepened the furrows on manager Martin Johnson’s brow as he prepares for his biggest match in charge.

Victory would guarantee England a last-eight place although they could qualify in defeat with a losing bonus point, while Scotland, never short of motivation against their cross-border foes, know only a comfortable win will suffice.

“It’s knockout rugby – we have to win, they have to win. We’re not talking about a losing bonus point. We want to go and win,” said Johnson, who has recalled Delon Armitage, Courtney Lawes and Matt Stevens.

Scotland would be on far firmer footing had they not slipped to a dramatic defeat against Argentina last week, and Johnson added: “They are potentially dangerous, potentially vulnerable. It is how they handle it. Their frustration their fury, whatever they have talked about this week, they have to turn that into a performance. We have to turn where we are into a performance.”