AUCKLAND // The English Rugby Football Union (RFU) has suspended two coaches for this weekend's Rugby World Cup game between England and Scotland after they illegally swapped balls used for conversions by their fly-half Jonny Wilkinson.
Dave Alred, the kicking coach, and the strength and conditioning staffer, Paul Stridgeon, were reprimanded and barred from Auckland's Eden Park stadium for Saturday's game after the incident during England's game against Romania.
The pair admitted using different balls for conversions than the one used to score the tries, which is against rugby rules, during England's 67-3 win at Stadium Otago. They had been warned twice by the referee Romain Poite.
"Two members of the team management, David Alred and Paul Stridgeon, mistakenly thought that there was an issue with some of the match balls," said a statement from England's RFU.
"Those team management members took it upon themselves to substitute balls during the match 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."
World Cup organisers welcomed the "decisive and timely" move and said no further punishment would be handed out.
"It's unfortunate that 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 move on," Martin Johnston, the head coach, said.
The incident followed an uncharacteristically wobbly start to the tournament by the usually reliable Wilkinson, who has landed just 38 per cent of his penalties so far.
Wilkinson insisted the controversy had not been a distraction as England build up to Saturday's Pool B-deciding clash with arch-rivals Scotland, when both teams are trying to book quarter-final berths.
"You'd be surprised that it doesn't impact upon the rugby side of things. There's two sides of life when you're out here, you're on the field and off the field," Wilkinson said.
"On the field is literally about being on the field, off the field is about relaxing and getting away from it so it doesn't really fit into either of those.
"I'm not going to comment on the balls and things because that's going on somewhere else at the moment sorry. But for me it's all about getting better. It's about learning and making the most of your opportunities."
England have already had to deal with another controversy at the tournament including the conduct of Mike Tindall, the vice-captain and centre, on a team night out, just weeks after marrying the British royal Zara Phillips.
And lock Courtney Lawes became the first player to be suspended at the World Cup after kneeing the Argentina hooker Mario Ledesma in the head during a tackle.