Piers Francis has escaped a ban for his high tackle on the USA’s Will Hooley after his World Cup citing was not upheld, handing England a full strength squad to choose from against Argentina on Saturday.
Francis became the fourth player cited at the tournament amid World Rugby’s clampdown on high tackles for his hit on Hooley after just seven seconds of England’s 45-7 victory over the USA last Thursday. But the three-man disciplinary panel, which comprised Nigel Hampton, Frank Hadden and John Langford – two of whom decided that Australia’s Reece Hodge deserved a three-week ban –concluded that Francis’ tackle warranted a yellow card only.
Francis was accompanied to the hearing in Tokyo by England’s QC Richard Smith, who successfully argued that there were sufficient mitigating circumstances for the panel to rule that the appropriate on-field sanction should have 10 minutes in the sin-bin, on “the balance of probabilities”.
Francis admitted committing an act of foul play but denied that the tackle met the red card threshold. The panel implemented World Rugby’s high tackle sanction framework and initially decided that a red card was warranted. But taking into account mitigating factors such as Hooley’s “sudden” change of height before the tackle, Francis’s attempt to change his own height and that the initial contact was made on Hooley’s shoulder by Francis’s head the panel then opted to reduce the sanction to yellow. It is understood that the USA did not refer the incident to the citing commissioner after reviewing it.
It means Eddie Jones will have all 31 players to pick from against Argentina, with his assistant Steve Borthwick on Sunday confirming that Jack Nowell and Mako Vunipola are on course to return on Saturday. “All players are fit and in consideration [for selection]right now,” Borthwick said. “We’ll be watching clearly, we’ve got some guys who will be in their first full week of team training. They will have been a part of it, so we will be watching them on a day-by-day basis, just tracking them, but right now, we’ve got a very fit squad.”
England are already in pole position in Pool C with two bonus-point wins from two matches and their hand could be further strengthened if Typhoon Mitag strikes France’s clash with the USA on Wednesday. Mitag is headed towards Japan’s southern island of Kyushu and with France taking on the USA in Fukuoka, World Rugby has warned both teams it may not be possible to play the match on Wednesday.
Tournament rules state that if a pool stage match cannot be played on its scheduled date it will be cancelled and both teams will receive two match points from what effectively becomes a 0-0 draw. France, who England play in Yokohama on Saturday week, won their opening match against Argentina and would ordinarily expect to beat the USA comfortably.
Meanwhile, Borthwick believes Japan’s sensational victory over Ireland on Saturday can transform the sporting landscape in the host country. Borthwick was Jones’s assistant with Japan when they famously stunned South Africa at the 2015 World Cup. Their captain Michael Leitch claimed on Sunday that both victories were of equal significance but Borthwick was not surprised by Saturday’s result. “I had the privilege of coaching Japan, coaching a tier two team and you see the growth in the tier two teams. There is the expectation that they can win, they believe they can win. It was not surprising.
“If you look at Japan’s history in World Cups prior to 2015, it does not make pretty reading. Now Japan go into these games expecting to win and that’s great credit to what that coaching team have done with them.
“Physically they are very good. I think the rugby is good to watch. The play to their strengths. They are smart with it. When you see the excitement in the stadiums with their supporters they have, the passion for the game is there. As more and more people are exposed to the sport during this tournament, I think it can grow even bigger.”