Brendan Fanning: Leinster erred by not following up Jocelino Suta's nasty choke
Published 26/04/2015 | 10:40
Midway through the first half of the Premiership game between Saints and Wasps in Franklins Gardens last month, George North was knocked out cold. There was a time not too long ago when the image you immediately associated with the Wales wing was of a powerful athlete on the rampage. Now it's of a man in trouble: bang; lights out; game over.
It was hard to know which was more pathetic, the sight of North going south or that of Nathan Hughes, like a gentle giant, confused by the effect of his seemingly unplanned contact. The Wasps back-rower was sent off, and subsequently banned for three weeks. Uproar followed for, according to many convincing accounts, Hughes is a decent man and this looked like an accident. The ban was overturned on appeal.
The damage he did and the involvement of the TMO seemed crucial in his red card. Now, imagine what would have happened if North had not lost consciousness, if instead he got up without any assistance and carried on? You think the play would have been stopped and the rewind button pressed?
Fast-forward to Marseille last Sunday. Almost 84 minutes had gone when Leinster dropped off to the left-hand side and Richardt Strauss challenged at the breakdown that followed. Jocelino Suta, the Toulon second-row, cleaned him out by grabbing him around the neck in a choke hold, and for between seven and eight seconds - which must feel like an eternity if someone is closing your windpipe - he maintained that grip, wrestling Strauss to the ground and not releasing him until the whistle went for a penalty.
The sight of Strauss slapping Suta's arm - or 'tapping out' as the action is called in mixed martial arts - is as desperate a thing as we've seen on a rugby field. Wayne Barnes penalised the Toulon player and explained the penalty to stand-in captain Chris Masoe as being "dangerous". Not so dangerous evidently that he wanted another look at it.
The rest of us got plenty of subsequent views. And we couldn't believe what we were seeing. So how was it that the matter wasn't taken any further?
The citing procedure is an independent one, a vast improvement on the crazy carry-on that blighted the Heineken Cup during the early part of the new century when teams could initiate a disciplinary process against an opposing player solely on the basis of a complaint. It led to pre-emptive strikes and retaliatory strikes and a whole heap of wasted time and money.
Since 2005 the process has been vested in an independent source, which is not to say that the citing commissioner can't be influenced. For example, after any game nowadays he will pop down to each dressing room to see if either team has any issues of foul play that they feel need reviewing. If they have then it's up to him to decide if they have a case. This process doesn't preclude him from initiating proceedings off his own bat, but it gives him an idea of which way the wind is blowing.
Scotland's Douglas Hunter, a very experienced operator, was the man on the case in Marseille. When he enquired of Leinster if there was a storm brewing there wasn't a wisp. Dead calm. Rather they were too wrapped up in coming to terms with having just lost a Champions Cup semi-final after extra-time. Fair enough.
Moreover there didn't seem to have been any appreciation of how bad the incident with Strauss actually was. What's interesting however is that even if they had a good feel for what had happened, they still would have let it slide.
Leinster's policy on this is old-school, and wrong. They don't like opposition management going after their players so they don't do it themselves. You can imagine then that they were unimpressed by Ulster's eagerness for Jack McGrath to be cited in January - he was banned for three weeks for stamping on Rory Best, which cost him a place in Leinster's last two pool games in the Champions Cup.
Instead they let the citing commissioner get on with his job, uninfluenced. This stoicism doesn't extend to their policy on referees however, and Matt O'Connor is not slow to aim both barrels in that direction when he feels the ref has given his team a hard time. This hardly makes him unique, but it doesn't quite square with their policy on sucking up foul play handed out to their players.
This extends to the day after the event when the hangover of the defeat may have cleared but the window on a citing is still open - it extends for 50 hours from the match kick-off. Remarkably nobody that we know of in the Leinster set-up thought there was an issue over the Strauss incident. And even if they had, nothing would have been done. This strategy beggars belief. In effect their policy of being manly makes them a soft touch.
It is, we think, derelict in its duty to their own players and to the game itself. Rugby is a dangerous enough pastime without letting stranglers like Suta roam the fields unchecked. Leinster could have acted, and did nothing.
The upshot is that the second-row is free to play in the Champions Cup final against Clermont next Saturday. He should have been answering a charge of a high tackle/dangerous play. In 2011, the IRB issued a memorandum 'to emphasise, as with tip tackles, that they (high hits) must be dealt with severely by referees and all those involved in the off-field disciplinary process'.
A penalty and no card is about as severe as a slap on the backside to a rogue elephant. This episode will provide further evidence to EPCR, the governors of the new Champions Cup, and World Rugby (formerly the IRB) that their disciplinary system is based on flawed practice. In reality, it is largely about material effect, which is an issue that should come up at a disciplinary hearing, not when you're trying to decide if there should be a hearing at all.
If Richardt Strauss had opted to stay on the ground after the Suta assault instead of getting back to his feet in relief; if the medics had rushed on and made a fuss; then Wayne Barnes would have felt obliged to go upstairs to the TMO and Suta would have walked on either a yellow or red card.
Instead Strauss' honesty covered Barnes' mistake. And then Leinster's post-match 'suck-it-up' strategy compounded it. In the process they sold the player short, and the game lost out as well. Matt O'Connor's review of the day didn't extend beyond why his team had lost. It should have gone much deeper than that.
Sunday Indo Sport