AUSTRALIAN disciplinary chiefs were last night branded “a joke” after Wallabies captain James Horwill escaped punishment for his alleged stamp on British and Irish Lions forward Alun-Wyn Jones.
The controversial reprieve means that Horwill, who was cited after the Lions beat Australia 23-21 in Saturday’s first Test in Brisbane, is free to lead the hosts as they seek to level the series in Melbourne.
It came amid growing fears for the fitness of Lions lock Paul O’Connell, who has an arm injury, and prop Alex Corbisiero, whose calf problem yesterday prompted a call-up for Ireland’s Tom Court.
Ospreys second-row Jones needed stitches to his eye after the incident three minutes into Saturday’s match, but judicial officer Nigel Hampton QC said he could not be sure Horwill, 28 had trampled deliberately.
“After hearing all the evidence I could not find that when James Horwill’s right foot came into glancing contact with Alun-Wyn Jones’ face, that he was acting recklessly,” he said.
“I found that I could not reject as being implausible or improbable Horwill’s explanation that as he was driving forward with his right leg raised he was spun off balance through the impact of Lions players entering the ruck from the opposite side.”
The decision will fuel suspicions among some Lions fans of favouritism, and former England captain Will Carling – part of the 1993 tour of New Zealand – criticised the outcome of the disciplinary hearing.
“Rugby is a tough game, sometimes brutal. One key code, no stamping on heads. Horwill you did. Aussie QC – balance is a joke excuse. Shocking,” he wrote on Twitter.
Medical staff continue to monitor O’Connell, who captained the 2009 Lions tour of South Africa and is deputy to Sam Warburton this time, ahead of Saturday’s second Test.
His Ireland colleague Court goes straight onto the bench for tomorrow’s tour match against Melbourne Rebels, with England’s Mako Vunipola withdrawn and put on stand-by to replace Corbisiero at the weekend.
England centre Manu Tuilagi is set to return from a shoulder injury against the Rebels, while Lions head coach Warren Gatland hopes to have Jamie Roberts and wing Tommy Bowe available for the second Test, following respective hamstring and hand problems.
“To have Tommy and Manu fit and back is a great compliment to the medical staff,” said Gatland.
“Tommy is fit for Saturday, he’s running, but the more time he has to heal the better. The surgeon said that that injury is normally a six to eight-week injury, so to be fit in three weeks is magnificent. It’s important not to risk him on Tuesday. We don’t think Jamie is too far away, he’s up and running and is potentially available for next weekend.”
To face Melbourne Rebels
Rob Kearney; Sean Maitland, Manu Tuilagi, Brad Barritt, Simon Zebo; Owen Farrell, Conor Murray; Ryan Grant, Richard Hibbard, Dan Cole, Richie Gray, Geoff Parling (capt), Dan Lydiate, Sean O’Brien, Toby Faletau
Bench: Rory Best, Tom Court, Matt Stevens, Ian Evans, Justin Tipuric, Ben Youngs, Billy Twelvetrees, Stuart Hogg
Melbourne Rebels, Melbourne, tomorrow, 10:30am BST
Second Test v Australia, Melbourne, Saturday 29 June, 11am BST
Third Test v Australia, Sydney, Saturday 6 July, 11am BST