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England suspends coaches for switching RWC ball

Updated: September 29, 2011, 16:14

AUCKLAND, New Zealand(AP) England suspended two coaches from involvement in Saturday's crucial Rugby World Cup match against Scotland for switching the ball for Jonny Wilkinson's conversion attempts in the first half last week against Romania.

The move by the Rugby Football Union on Thursday staved off sanctions by World Cup organizers, but England was warned that any similar rule-breaches in future would be dealt with severely.

Kicking coach Dave Alred and national fitness coach Paul Stridgeon "mistakenly thought that there was an issue with some of the match balls'' in England's 67-3 Pool B win over Romania on Sept. 24, according to the RFU.

England stopped switching after being warned during the game and the RFU accepts the coaches' actions were "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 RFU said in a statement. "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, the match between England and Scotland.''

Match vision replayed on New Zealand TV late Thursday clearly showed one of the team staff kicking the match ball away after a try was scored so it it could be replaced. It has sparked criticism in New Zealand that England's decision to ban the two officials was self-serving and only motivated by concern sanctions after an inquiry could have been worse.

World Cup organizers have confirmed England will face no further sanctions, having been satisfied with the RFU's "decisive and timely action.''

"(Rugby World Cup Limited) accepts the RFU's assurances that it will abide by both the laws and the spirit of the game going forward,'' organizers said in a statement. "However it must be pointed out that any similar breaches in future will be dealt with severely.''

Immediately after the win over Romania, England coach Martin Johnson said he had not been aware of the issue over the balls.

Under rugby rules, the conversion attempt must be taken with the ball that was used during scoring play, unless it is damaged.

"If we feel a ball is not 100 percent we'll ask for it to be changed,'' Johnson said Thursday when he announced his team for the England match. "You have to ask the referee. If he says 'Yes,' you can. If he says 'No,' you can't.

"We didn't ask him (against Romania). It's unfortunate 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 have to move on.''

Wilkinson would not comment on the issue.

"It's not a place I want to put my foot right now,'' Wilkinson said.

The usually reliable Wilkinson missed five penalty attempts in the World Cup opener against Argentina although England still won 13-9 under the closed roof at Dunedin's Otago Stadium.

His strike rate is still less than 50 percent, which has brought the quality of the World Cup balls into question.

World Cup regulations state the match balls are to be used for the first time in the captain's run on the eve of matches.

As a result, some balls can be too hard and difficult to control because they have not been, what players call, "kicked-in.''

In 2003, England's triumphant World Cup campaign could have been derailed after the team briefly fielded 16 men in the pool victory over Samoa.

England escaped a points deduction after facing a disciplinary hearing in Sydney.

Wilkinson was critical of the tournament ball at the 2007 World Cup, when the then defending champion England squad rallied from a shaky start to reach the final. England captain Mike Tindall hinted that his No. 10 may be just as unhappy with the Gilbert Virtuo ball used in New Zealand this time around.

In the England vs. Argentina match, the kickers succeeded with just six of 17 kicks at goal, with Wilkinson missing five of eight shots.

Teams only get to practice with the match balls a day before each World Cup game - each being allocated four from the set of eight - so England will the England kickers have been striking their share more than usual in an effort to increase the size of the so-called sweet spot that kickers aim for.

"The sweet spot is always in the same place, it's just how small it is. When it's new, it's just a bit smaller,'' Englands backup flyhalf Toby Flood explained after the opening match. "They are the same Gilbert Virtuo as in the Six Nations. It's the same piece of equipment. I just think it's because they are a bit fresher at game time.

"When we are at home, we'll probably kick them in for a few days, whereas here's it's just an hour or so, so they behave slightly differently.''

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