Thursday 26 April 2018

Neil Francis: Frightening how quickly cheating has become the norm in rugby

Sin-bin sanction almost redundant as players know they can get away with blatant cynicism

Alan Quinlan confronts Neil Back of Leicester after the infamous incident at the end of the 2002 Heineken Cup final which incensed Munster fans. Photo: Getty
Alan Quinlan confronts Neil Back of Leicester after the infamous incident at the end of the 2002 Heineken Cup final which incensed Munster fans. Photo: Getty
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Not exactly a "one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, now go cat go" start to the competition. Quality in the Champions Cup is as scarce as sponsors. The Irish teams all did better than could be expected but the gloss really has come off this competition.

The game evolves and with each passing year cynicism and the propensity to cheat jumps ahead of craft, invention, skill and the intent to play the game the way it should be played.

There is no statute of limitations on cheating and all over the weekend I exhaled as players indulged in behaviour which I would hope is not natural to them but schooled and encouraged by coaching tickets who think it is the way forward.

The change in attitude has taken about 10 years - cheating was something where you had to think about it before you crossed the line - something that would prick your conscience. It is now first nature.

Every player who took the field last weekend would not even think twice about committing a professional foul. That would be a sign of weakness.

Speaking of pricking your conscience, it is 15 years since Neil Back knocked the ball out of Peter Stringer's hand into his side of the scrum. It took a while to forget but never to forgive. Yet last weekend there were half a dozen hand of Back incidents - we just take them as part of the game now.

How much blame can we apportion to the referatti? I have praised referees like Nigel Owens and Jerome Garces for their ability to coach the players under their arbitration not to infringe - anticipate that a player is going to do something illegal or stupid and talk him out of it before it happens.

Continuous It opens up the game and it keeps the penalty count low - sometimes well below 10 penalties a game. A penalty takes 30 seconds out of a game. A penalty kick takes a minute out of it. The governing body wants a continuous game. They don't want a technical infringement-fest with 30 penalties in a game.

Referees, as a consequence, possibly forget about the spirit of the game and the way it should be played and players and coaches take full advantage of this.

Yellow cards were something that I warmly endorsed when they were introduced. A few years ago a yellow could cost you on average a 10-point tariff. Teams now have become so adept at managing out the loss of their player that they go into 10-minute drill mode where they up their intensity, keep the ball, eat the clock and welcome back their player often with no damage on the scoreboard. Teams adapt!

The Castres versus Munster game last Sunday had half a dozen instances of thinly disguised cynicism all of which received the wrong sanction or no sanction from referee Matthew Carley.

Castres can play some good rugby when the mood takes them and they started brightly. A sustained attack in the fifth minute left Munster light on their right wing and Benjamin Urdapilleta knew there was no one at home in Munster's 22 when he chipped through for his athletic blind side Yannick Caballero. The kick was perfectly weighted and it bounced up to fall straight into the hands of the Castres back-rower. The cover was beaten and he was going to score.

Unbelievably, he lost his balance and fell over when it was easier to continue his run. The slo-mo was a depressingly familiar sight. Conor Murray was beaten by the deft chip but his next act was programmed and now first nature. Take the scorer out before he scores. Caballero's right leg was deliberately clipped by Murray and the Frenchman tripped over himself before he could collect the ball and score.

Carley saw the replay and only issued a yellow. A really poor decision. It was a certain try denied by an illegal challenge. A penalty try - 7-0 to Castres.

Straw poll here - how many of you applaud Murray's action? How many of you groan in exasperation as our game descends to the depths to join the other bottom feeders in professional sport. Even someone with Murray's rich pedigree is not immune from doing something that is beneath him.

Two minutes later, Julien Dumoura, the Castres full-back, is about to finish off a simple back-line movement by passing to Taylor Paris on the touchline of their right wing. Simon Zebo, helpless to stop the try, stuck his hand out to stop the pass. Zebo had no chance of catching it. Paris never got the opportunity to catch it and score. It was a certain try. The sanction - a penalty try, 7-0, and Zebo as well as Murray in the bin. Castres only got a penalty - a shameful dereliction of the rules of the game and, minutes later, Munster broke free and lifted the siege losing nothing on the scoreboard.

Castres through Robert Ebersohn scored five minutes later after he latched onto Chris Farrell's telegraphed cut-out pass. No justice as cheating prevails and wins.

Munster recover themselves and go knocking on the door and are under the Castres posts when Ebersohn comes around from the side of the ruck when all Murray had to do was touch the posts with the ball. The South African centre's act was so overt and deliberate you would almost class it as an act of stupidity rather than cynical. It wasn't though.

I think teams now designate players to save the seven points. You can't afford to have a prop do it because when the first scrum arrives you have to bring on a new prop and take off a back-row player.

Too much interchanging and rearranging with your pack . A centre in the bin? Well, you can improvise. Ebersohn came from a distance out to save his line. There were players closer who could have done what he did. Munster took the three points from the penalty. Should have been a penalty try. Did Munster not fancy a scrum against the full Castres eight? Or did they not have the confidence to try and run it on a split defence right in the middle of the pitch - five metres out.

Into the last five minutes and Castres broke out into Munster territory after a long period of defending.

David Kilcoyne comes in from the side of the ruck and takes Mihaita Lazar out with a flying tackle - 100 times out of 100 it is a penalty. Most times it's a yellow but not this time. Referee Carley decides that the opportunity to win the match with the resulting penalty will be punishment enough.

As Kilcoyne attempts to get off the ground, he is patted on the head and face by the unlikable Rory Kockett and Christophe Samson.

Sledging of this kind is an automatic penalty reversal and a yellow card. Referee Carley is two metres away but does not take the appropriate action. Urdapilleta misses the penalty with a truly dreadful kick but Castres press in the final minute or so.

Lumbering A ruck near the Munster five-metre line and Castres look dangerous . Robin Copeland, who is on his feet and had come through the gate and was onside, slaps the ball out of Kockett's hands as he attempts to clear from the base.

This became a penalty a few years ago to stop big lumbering forwards thwarting lovely flowing movements by reaching over and grabbing the scrum-half or slapping his pass down.

If the score had been 27-17, the cheaters' manual will say that it is the clever play because time was up. Just give away a penalty, break the momentum and eat the clock.

The score, however, was 17-17 and it was a really dumb thing to do. A penalty five metres from the line and 15 metres from the posts. 20-17 and Copeland has a long, uncomfortable flight back to Shannon.

Referee Carley thinks the ball had been cleared and it's not a penalty and awards the scrum to Munster. We are not sure if he got out of Castres alive last Sunday. There was another half dozen moments of dazzling cynical play at the breakdown and the same again at scrum time. This is just the Castres v Munster game.

Rugby in this case is the loser. Somebody please do something.

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