Tuesday 24 April 2018

O'Connell's unjust ban shows that crime does pay

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

According to the Collins English Dictionary, the definition of deliberate is something 'carefully thought out in advance; intentional'. Now, with the greatest of respect to ERC judicial officer Jeff Blackett, quite how Paul O'Connell's spur-of-the-moment attempt to release himself from Jonathan Thomas' illegal grip (one loaded with obvious intent) could be interpreted as a 'carefully thought out act' is beyond my comprehension.

What O'Connell did was wrong but was neither deliberate nor intentional. O'Connell was the victim, who unwittingly and unfairly became the one on trial.

Thomas was up to no good, yet O'Connell is in the dock. How often do we see the person retaliating ship a card, whether yellow or red, and the perpetrator slip free? It is this and the role of the touch judges that I have issue with.

Even allowing for the instantaneous nature of the act, any act, quite how touch judges charged with the responsibility of providing extra vision for the man in the middle cannot perform that basic function is beyond me.

Christophe Berdos spotted the blow to Thomas' head and went for red. Had he consulted with his touchline officials, would one or other have told the referee of the real culprit at the nub of the incident?

Not for a minute am I defending dirty play. I abhor it in every form. How could I coach young boys while advocating violence? But when justice is not being administered fairly then the game has a problem, with the nub of this high-profile incident at its core.


The aim of the IRB, ERC, SANZAR and various other governing rugby bodies around the world is to send the clearest message in relation to violence. The higher the profile of the player involved, the starker the warning, the clearer the message. Yes, in principle, but this time wrong incident, wrong culprit, wrong message.

Forgive me if I'm missing something here, but the one who instigated the incident (holding O'Connell back illegally off the ball) will line out again six days on in the rematch, but the one going about his business in his normal wholehearted way won't step onto a competitive rugby pitch again until mid-January. And the spin is he got off lightly. Give us a break. The reality is that crime pays.

It's like having your house broken into and because you dare defend yourself or your property against this invasion you find yourself before the courts. It is unjust.

Any player or ex-player, myself included, will identify with the frustration of being held illegally off the ball.

It is O'Connell's misfortune to have caught Thomas the way he did when all he was trying to do was break free from the Ospreys player's illegal bind. To suggest intent beyond that beggars belief. In this instance I do hope Munster appeal.

Either way it has added extra spice to today's showdown in Swansea. Having back-to-back games at mid-point in the tournament adds to the excitement. It also asks many probing questions of the coaching teams. What has been learnt last weekend that can be put to winning use a week on?

Certainly for all three Irish sides, today's games are massive in terms of the qualifying pools and indeed their respective seasons. They are three hugely competitive matches that could easily tilt either way.

The advantage is again with the home sides, making Leinster best positioned to secure an Irish victory. The Aviva Stadium will be heaving come a quarter to six today.

Ulster are first into action at the Recreation Ground in what is simply must-win territory for both sides. A win at the Rec (achieved there last season thanks to Andrew Trimble's spectacular try) could set up Brian McLaughlin's side for pool qualification for the first time in 12 barren years since claiming the title in 1999.

The Ravenhill game was a comedy of errors but in the end the Stephen Ferris-inspired Ulstermen eked out the result they deserved. That said, the same error count today and it will be back to the drawing board for another year at least.

For Munster, it is a journey into familiar territory against a Welsh side who can be brilliant when focused yet awful when not on their game. Today it will be the former on show for sure. I love their playing style; they are peppered with class in key sectors throughout the side.

Munster have been hurt by the O'Connell affair. Platitudes coming from within Welsh ranks as to the "great guy" and "clean player" he is simply don't wash. Let's put it this way, individual and collective motivation won't be a problem for Tony McGahan in the build-up to kick-off. Prepare for fireworks in what is guaranteed to be a frenetic, high-tempo, no-holds-barred affair at the Liberty Stadium.

So too at Lansdowne Road, where last weekend's 80 electric minutes in Clermont are likely to be replicated or perhaps surpassed this afternoon. Despite such a great start to the tournament, Leinster's place in the knockout stages is on the line against a Clermont side firmly focused on European success. Leinster resources have been stretched to the limit and if they can pull off a victory today it will be one of their greatest in this tournament.

All three ultra-competitive games last weekend finished with the travelling team taking home a bonus. Expect it to be every bit as close again today. Bath, the Ospreys and Leinster will start as favourites but at least one will fall. Your guess is as good as mine as to who it will be. The mystique of competitive sport at its best. Brace yourselves.

Irish Independent

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