No escaping a moment of madness
Former colleagues fear the worst with O'Connell's defence paper thin
Published 14/12/2010 | 05:00
Paul O'Connell did not need the judgment of his peers to realise that Sunday's moment of madness offered as little wriggle room for escape as that afforded to the hapless, shirt-tugging Jonathan Thomas.
But they were damning nonetheless, and their harsh scrutiny should mirror the post-mortem that will certainly be taking place behind closed doors within the Munster squad this week, as they prepare for their pivotal return clash with the Ospreys on Saturday.
Indeed, Munster's Denis Leamy abruptly rejected any defence from his own camp by starkly outlining the bare facts of the matter yesterday.
"The referee had to make a decision," he said. "You can say it's harsh all you want, but he's given the red card and it's time for us to move on."
Leamy's appraisal bodes well for an honest reflection from the Munster squad on the disciplinary perils raised by O'Connell's reckless actions, unlike some of his colleagues' unambiguous offerings.
Tomas O'Leary's contribution yesterday -- "Paulie's red card was harsh and he deserves to be available for our return leg in Swansea" -- does neither himself, his captain nor his team-mates any favours.
O'Connell's former colleague Keith Wood's immediate reaction on radio commentary was to affirm that referee Christophe Berdos, whatever his interpretation on the laws of scrummaging, could not disregard the actions of the former Lions captain.
Analyst Brent Pope's observations were equally unambiguous, while another of O'Connell's former colleagues, Malcolm O'Kelly, asserted that the Munster captain would be "pretty p****d with himself".
It was bad enough that the Ospreys, themselves past masters at exploiting rule interpretations in the professional game, immediately withdrew Thomas from the fray. Given the current spotlighting of head injuries, their actions might be interpreted as pre-empting a disciplinary hearing were they to claim that their player was unable to carry on due to the blow to the head.
Never mind the bad timing of O'Connell's reckless action, coming barely 10 minutes into his Heineken Cup comeback, the authorities are likely to take a dim view of any implications that a head injury was the ultimate outcome, notwithstanding any diminished responsibility that may be argued due to lack of intent.
In the amateur era, O'Connell's crime would barely have raised a flickering eyebrow or prompted even a nod of disapproval.
In the professional era, however, the raft of television cameras and slow motion replays, not to mention the upgrading of assistant referee responsibilities and the presence of citing commissioners, means that little escapes the surfeit of eagle eyes.
Incidents such as Sunday's once happened with monotonous regularity but, in an era where rucking has been ridiculously outlawed, there is now zero tolerance for violence in rugby, even if the global inconsistency of disciplinary sanctions often makes a mockery of such lofty ideals.
O'Connell's sin was to get caught.
Much of the talk among supporters leaving Thomond Park on Sunday evening was to ponder what the implications would have been had it been an Ospreys player who had been guilty of an offence similar to O'Connell's.
The overwhelming assertion was that there would be an equally cacophonous clarion call for summary justice to be issued. As Pope pointed out, "If one of the All Blacks or Australians did it, there would be uproar."
O'Connell, having proved to be such a restorative presence in Munster's squad last week -- the roar that greeted his arrival arguably equalled that which acclaimed David Wallace's second try -- will now certainly find himself absent for an even more crucial stage of his squad's tilt at the Heineken Cup.
For a player of his stature, a former Lions and Ireland captain and the current Munster captain, to succumb to such an ill-advised course of action demonstrated a rare lapse of discipline.
The consequences may be grave for him personally and they could have been even more serious for his team, whose stirring response, holding the numerically superior visitors scoreless, mercifully denied the Ospreys the chance to do against 14 men what Munster had earlier managed themselves during their 14-point blitz when Paul James had been sin-binned.
Munster must now question whether a discipline problem could threaten to derail their Heineken Cup hopes; heading into the Liberty Stadium with their every move examined in microscopic detail will heighten the pressure on the side to keep their cool.
Undoubtedly, the squad will retreat into siege mentality mode this week, especially after Sunday's referee Berdos referenced an incident shown on Sky Sports in his pre-match chat with the Munster coaches.
O'Connell's reaction may have resulted from a collective annoyance at the Ospreys' frustrating tactics of off-the-ball holding, however Munster can not earn a reputation for dishing out their own punishment. That remains the referee's role, however inconsistent his performance on any given day.
"If you strike a player in the face, it doesn't matter whether it's accidental or not," offered Pope. "I didn't think Jonathan milked it all. Paul O'Connell knew what he'd done. I don't think he intended to do it."
Again, the parochial interest is to divine whether or not an illegal action was intentional or not; this serves to miss the point, as a transgression against the rules does not always allow for such a subtle delineation.
"The moment it happened, I feared the worst for him," O'Kelly said in his Joe.ie column.
"I don't believe there was anything malicious in it at all. He's been out a long time and the Ospreys No 8 was pulling and dragging out of him.
"Paulie swung back and he was just unlucky that he caught him flush in the chin and Jonathan Thomas went down like a sack of spuds. If he'd connected marginally lower with his arm there wouldn't have been anything in it.
"Paulie, without meaning to pre-empt, is probably facing a ban of a couple of games, which will be very frustrating for him. He will be pretty p****d with himself and must wonder when he is going to catch a break."
He is unlikely to get one from the ERC beaks, although fears that he may miss the Six Nations, a technical possibility, are unlikely to be upheld when judgment is eventually passed down later this week.
For O'Connell and Munster, the lessons need to be absorbed, no more so than when Jamie Heaslip, a potential Ireland and Lions captain, succumbed to his moment of thoughtlessness last summer.
Anthony Foley used to say that Munster were "better when we're bitter". Foley is now part of the Munster coaching staff who, along with his colleagues, must ensure that Munster walk the tightrope that separates bitterness from bile in what promises to be a red-hot environment.