Woodward throws Yates a lifeline


Kevin Yates, having swiftly lodged his appeal against the English Rugby Football Union's six-month ban for biting Simon Fenn's ear in a match against London Scottish, has found a sympathetic ally in the England coach Clive Woodward, who yesterday threw the Bath prop an international lifeline.

Woodward, whose squad is short of high-quality Test props, made it clear that he hoped the twice-capped 25-year-old would be available for international selection next season.

Club sources suggest that Bath, too, are prepared to stand by Yates after they have held their own internal inquiry and reached a financial agreement with the player over the loss of his services until July 10th, when the ban runs out.

Having almost certainly lost the England prop John Mallett, who faces a 60-day ban for stamping in a reserve game last weekend, Bath are likely to close ranks behind him and Yates.

Woodward's positive response has also reminded Bath that, whether or not Yates wins his appeal, which must be heard by the RFU within 14 days, they have a proven England prop on their books. Bath, whose European Cup triumph guarantees them a place in Europe as holders next season, are aware that Yates would probably be snapped up were his Bath contract terminated.

"We have to go along with the RFU decision on Yates," acknowledged Woodward. "Quite clearly, he cannot be considered until next season unless his appeal is successful. I just hope he returns fit, in form and available to resume what looks like being a promising career."

Jeff Probyn, however, a former England prop and an RFU council member, dismissed Woodward's support for Yates as "a bit of a stupid statement". He added: "If Clive is saying it's just one of those things and once you've served your ban you're back in the England squad, then basically he's condoning violent play. If Yates is found guilty (on appeal), a six-month sentence is extremely light and he is extremely lucky."

Nevertheless Yates - who, according to the RFU, must pay costs of £23,000, most of which is due to London Scottish - may, far from contemplating a bleak professional future, simply sit out the remaining three months of the season, take a refreshing summer break and resume Premiership rugby with Bath when the new season begins in mid-August. He could find himself targeted by opponents and rival fans on his return, but, given his resilient nature, that should not prove an insurmountable barrier to his progress.

"It is difficult with any employee should the subject of dismissal crop up," said Thomas Sheppard, director of Bath Rugby. "Clearly Kevin is a talented player, who is well liked and respected, but no one here is belittling Simon Fenn's injury.

"Regarding Kevin's club disciplinary hearing, then it is obviously not practical for us to stage it until any RFU appeal has taken place."

Yates' immediate hurdle is the appeal process, which may be as protracted as the RFU tribunal hearing which occupied three lengthy sessions under the chairmanship of Michael Burton QC.

"I'm very upset and disappointed with the (RFU) decision and I am completely innocent," said Yates, who has consistently maintained that position since the Cup match on January 10th in which Fenn suffered an ear wound.

Significantly, Woodward left the England door ajar for Yates a fortnight ago when he remarked: "If Kevin maintains he is innocent of ear-biting, then I think we have to accept that unless the evidence proves otherwise."

Unsurprisingly, in view of his previous stance, Yates declared he would lodge an appeal with his lawyers forthwith. The lack of video evidence to support the RFU verdict could give Yates a strong basis for a successful appeal, since no player witnessed the incident.

If Yates' appeal fails he could seek to have the RFU verdict overturned in the High Court and, if that proved successful, he could sue for damages.

The fall-out from the Yates affair is certain to bring about irrevocable change in the disciplinary procedures of English rugby. Whatever the fate of the RFU verdict, few would deny that Yates had to wait too long for the disciplinary hearing to take place, and the way the evidence was collated was time-consuming.

In fact, the decision by a club to suspend a player because he has been charged with violent play is deeply suspect: it implies a degree of guilt.

Yates was suspended on full pay by Bath, but he may feel his enforced absence from the European Cup final in Bordeaux was an unwarranted punishment in advance of the RFU hearing.

French number eight Thomas Lievremont is expected to be fit to face Scotland at Murrayfield on February 21st after suffering injured ribs in the alleged stamping incident involving England prop Jason Leonard.

Lievremont will not be able to train for eight days as a result of the injury picked up on Saturday.

He left the field early in the second half and the French Rugby Federation (FFR) have lodged a letter of complaint with the English Rugby Football Union over Leonard's alleged actions.

The FFR said yesterday that Lievremont had already been ruled out of playing for his club, Perpignan, this weekend but would return to training early next week and "is expected to leave with the rest of the squad next Thursday".