Tindall's exoneration underlines chaos at RFU

LONDON (Reuters): Mike Tindall's partial exoneration and restoration to English rugby's elite player squad will allow the 2003 World Cup winner a more dignified exit from the international set-up, but it does little to banish the image of a governing body in disarray.

Tindall was booted out of the squad and fined 25,000 pounds ($38,900) earlier this month for his antics on a night out in the New Zealand resort town of Queensland during England's dismal World Cup campaign.

The 33-year-old, who earlier this year married the Queen's grand-daughter Zara Phillips, was punished after being captured on film drinking with a "mystery blonde" as one tabloid termed it, and wrestling with team mates.

He remained part of the England team throughout the campaign, but the incident, and an absence of any apology from the vice captain, dogged England throughout the World Cup.

The centre was removed from the squad on his return following an inquest led by the Rugby Football Union's elite rugby director Rob Andrew.

That the RFU's acting chief executive Martyn Thomas on Monday night over-turned the punishment, and reduced the fine to 15,000 pounds ($23,300), will only have increased the friction in the upper tiers of the sport's governing body in England.

It comes at a time when they are trying to find a new chief executive, appoint a new national team coach, and start to build for hosting the 2015 World Cup.

National coach Martin Johnson quit amid the fall-out of the New Zealand tournament, in which England were beaten by France in the quarter-finals, and just before a trio of confidential reports into the World Cup debacle was leaked to The Times newspaper. MITIGATING FACTORS

Thomas, who leaves the RFU next month, said that there had been mitigating factors and that Tindall had not deliberately misled the RFU management team when he said he could not remember where he was on the night of Sept. 11.

"He was relying on other people's versions of events which were relayed to him," Thomas said. "There was no evidence of sexual impropriety of any nature with the woman in question and we accept the fact that she is a family friend who he has known for a long time."

Thomas also said Tindall had expressed "deep regret" at the appeal meeting and apologised to former head coach Johnson and his England team mates.

The reports which were earlier this month leaked to The Times featured a litany of comments from players, provided on condition of anonymity, and many were critical of the senior players' behaviour and drinking.

Thomas said: "It is, however, important to stress that we believe Mike's behaviour fell way below that to be expected of somebody of his calibre and experience. He exposed himself to a very compromising position and exposed the rest of the team to damaging publicity."

Thomas said the elite performance squad would be reviewed on Jan. 1, and that the decision to overturn Tindall's exclusion would not prevent those deciding the composition of the elite squad from taking into account the Queenstown incident when making that decision.

Once a new England management is in place, and with a World Cup on home soil in 2015 to plan for, it would seem unlikely Tindall will add to his 75 caps in the future given his age and the need to blood younger players, but at least Thomas's ruling allows the player to make that decision for himself.

Thomas's decision was welcomed by the Rugby Players Association with chief executive Damian Hopley saying: "We have always maintained that the original judgement was misguided and mishandled and it is our assertion that Mike has been unfairly treated as a scapegoat on this matter.

"The reduction in the fine and reinstatement into the full England EPS Squad confirms this.

"The significant reputational damage to all the parties involved in this matter is something that we feel could have been avoided with the appropriate action taken at the time."

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