Sport Rugby

Saturday 24 February 2018

Grave miscarriage of justice for O'Connell

Hugh Farrelly

THERE are certain things in life that are unfailingly irritating. Top of the list are Nell McCafferty; Irish people who use the phrase "I'm all set"; women who fish around in their purses at tills or linger to peruse receipts at ATMs; and vulgarians who choose to release wet sneezes without covering the nose/mouth area.

And, on a rugby pitch, there is little to compare with the irritation felt when someone holds you back by the jersey as you are trying to follow the play. The natural reaction is to release yourself as swiftly as possible in an instinctive "get the f*** off me" manner, which usually involves an energetic heave of the arms, you do it before you think about it and try and get back to the game.

Having once thrown a punch that elicited the query "are you trying to stroke my hair or what?", we cannot claim to be experts, but a deliberate punch or elbow is very easy to spot and what Paul O'Connell did last weekend wasn't the first cousin of a deliberate blow.

Sitting in the press box in Stade Marcel Michelin waiting for kick-off in Leinster's Heineken Cup clash with Clermont, word began to filter through that O'Connell had received a red card in Thomond Park and the heart immediately sank. The Munster captain's importance to Irish rugby does not need to be restated here and, after working his way back from a torturous spell of rehabilitation, further time out for disciplinary reasons was the last thing anyone with a vested interest in Irish rugby needed.

Matters in hand meant it was not until later that night in the hotel that there was a chance to view the incident and the findings beggared belief. A red card for that? Preposterous, or, to put it another way, big swing.

There was a time, not so long ago, when this would not have raised an eyebrow but rugby's rise to prominence and popularity has placed the spotlight on disciplinary issues and the media have adopted an English soccer-style, hysterical reaction to occurrences of this nature.

There are a couple of issues at play here. First of all, the referee got it badly wrong when he stated he had seen a deliberate elbow to the face. The video clearly shows O'Connell looking at the ruck in front of him when he began the movement and it was obviously the Munsterman's forearm, not his elbow, which made contact.

Secondly, Jonathan Thomas exacerbated the situation by displaying all the masculinity of Bonnie Langford as he crumpled to the ground in a cloud of oestrogen.

This trend of applying cynical pressure on referees to produce cards is utterly reprehensible. Rugby is a contact sport, defined by its physicality. Thomas should have manned up and got on with it and deserves to be ostracised in his own dressing-room for such a pathetic showing.

Then we got yesterday's, ridiculous four-week suspension. At the very most, it deserved a yellow card and once the red card was issued, erroneously, that should have been the end of it.

This was not contact with the eye or a stamp on the head. Even when those offences are committed with no intent, as has happened with Irish players in recent times, suspensions have to be served because of the areas involved. Rugby has lost the run of itself when a player's career can be stymied for a month based on something as run of the mill as this.

The Ospreys are a soulless operation, high on self-regard, low on morality. The comments of their forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys, when he tried to influence the disciplinary process, were despicable.

The stunt the Welsh pulled last season, postponing their match against Ulster, was compounded by breaking regulations last week when they named the suspended Marty Holah in their side before his appeal had been heard. The flanker was then cleared by an appeal committee chaired by Roger Morris, who hails from ... wait for it ... Swansea.

When it comes to O'Connell, the extent to which justice has not been done is embarrassing and shameful. When it comes to the Ospreys, expect justice to be done at the Liberty Stadium tomorrow when Munster free them from their Heineken Cup obligations for another, unfulfilling, season.

Irish Independent

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