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Tony Ward: O'Connell controversy shows the growing bitterness of Leinster- Munster rivalry

Once upon a time it was Queensland versus New South Wales, or Northern Transvaal against Western Province. Closer to home maybe it was Cardiff fronting up to Llanelli or perhaps Bath coming head to head with Leicester. These were the 'El Clasicos' of their time.

Today these teams equate to the Reds, the Waratahs, the Bulls, the Stormers, the Blues, the Scarlets, Bath (how boring) and the Tigers. When they meet their fellow countrymen, these are still massive bragging-rights affairs but in the interim one local derby has not alone been sneaking up on the rails, but now surpasses them all for interest, attendance and intensity.

We wouldn't be so bold as to suggest that when Leinster and Munster come face to face the nation grinds to a halt, but certainly interest in the clash of provincial blue and red extends way beyond anything comparable in the oval ball code in either hemisphere right now. If nothing else, it speaks volumes for the manner in which rugby has taken off and has captured the imagination of many on this little island since the dawn of professionalism.

By and large the rivalry has been good for our 'cluiche mor', but fuelled by a myriad of vitriolic internet forums, I fear that what started as healthy banter is turning into something much more nasty indeed. There will always be an element of 'culchie taking on jackeen' (not that Leinster fans are confined to the metropolis – far from it) but even that mythical rivalry has moved on from innocent fun to a nastiness bordering on racism.

Divide

This growing divide has been highlighted more than ever in recent days following Paul O'Connell's kick on David Kearney. And please, for the purpose of this contribution, can we be spared the semantics as to whether it was reckless or careless, whether it was the shin or boot making contact, the reality is that a player was stretchered off unconscious unable to partake in his occupation for a fortnight at least.

That is the bottom line. By not holding a more in-depth inquiry beyond citing commissioner Eddie Walsh's video review, the game reneged on its responsibility and in the process threw it open to a media frenzy.

Rugby's officiators are responsible for the protection of players and last Saturday in Limerick that was not seen to be done. Since the incident, we have had the player central to it stating that he didn't think he would have a case to answer because: "I knew in my own head what had happened."

Had he been given the proper forum in which to articulate that view – a disciplinary hearing by way of citation – it would have diffused the media bomb that has exploded since whereby, to quote from the main man, "you have people looking at it with a blue jersey or red jersey on."

I happen to believe 100pc that O'Connell went for the ball without a shred of malicious intent, yet, for expressing that opinion, I have been accused of pandering to my roots and of being an apologist for O'Connell. I really need that one explained to me – but at least this Leinster-blinkered former player had the courage to make contact minus the cloak of anonymity. However, he is wrong – period.

My concern is, and will always be, with the welfare of player and game. I couldn't give a toss what colour shirt any alleged offender is wearing.

Rob Penney's contribution certainly didn't help. By defending his player, he added unnecessary fuel to an already raging fire and in the process forced his opposite number Joe Schmidt to respond.

So, where to from here? On Wednesday the Pro12 issued a press release stating that "in the specific Munster v Leinster game last Saturday, the independent citing commissioner considered all incidents and decided there was no citings forthcoming, ie no incident that would have warranted a red card."

Therein lies the core of the problem and the issue in need of most urgent address. According to the Pro12 Rules, Rule/Law 7 states that "the citing commissioner shall be entitled to cite a player for any acts of foul play that, in the opinion of the citing commissioner, warranted the player being shown a red card."

O'Connell's action did not warrant a red card, but it most certainly did warrant further investigation. As Schmidt (hopefully soon to be O'Connell's coach at international level) has highlighted since, "to put it in a broader context we've got to think in terms of the global game and in terms of parents and kids who watch that because I've got a guy (Kearney), who was in a pretty sick state on Saturday night.

"If something like that is not highlighted you create a baseline that makes things acceptable that can be dangerous to the game and my duty is the duty of care to my players."

That in a nutshell is why Rule 7 must have the term 'red card offence' removed. Here rugby league leads the way and, just as Gaelic games is not slow in learning from rugby union, rugby union must not be slow in following the league route given how far the 13-man code is down the professional road.

ignored

In league the emphasis is not on red or yellow card but on putting any untoward or mid-match act "on report." The referee simply raises his hands above his head and crosses his arms to indicate that a disciplinary panel will look into the incident. It is as simple as that. Instead what we have left following last week's incident, which unfortunately overshadows everything else, is a feeling of justice, not alone denied but ignored, on the basis of a 'them's the rules' policy.

Not good enough in any era and most certainly not good enough today. If the unfortunate Kearney is to feel anything worthwhile coming from the pain shipped in the cause of his province and the game he loves, then let it be in this overhaul of the citing law going forward.

As for the pro-Leinster/anti-Munster and pro-Munster/anti-Leinster bloggers... give us a break.

Irish Independent