Wednesday 17 January 2018

Vincent Hogan: It is profoundly wrong that Paul O'Connell will line out against Clermont next weekend

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Maybe it was something in how he patted Nigel Owens in the midriff while walking back to the forwards' huddle, or it could have been the way he then stood, wordless, among colleagues that told you Paul O'Connell was uncomfortable.

The camera refused to leave him, its scrutiny cold and – seemingly – accusing. Replays would show the full impact of that blurring kick and its sickening impact across the side of Dave Kearney's head.

You didn't need the supposedly trained eye of a citing officer to know that what had happened was unacceptable. It was still an image to make the blood run cold.

Imagine, say, the offending boot had been wrapped around a French or Argentinian foot? Who in these parts would have viewed it through equivocal eyes?

Yet, next weekend, O'Connell will line out for Munster in the biggest game of their season against Clermont. It is profoundly wrong that he can.

O'Connell is no thug, but that single, reckless act last weekend could have carried the gravest consequence. Who he is and what he has done in the game should bear no relevance here.

How utterly baffling to note the juxtaposition this week between the conflicted coverage of his story and the tsunami of piety rolling out of Augusta over Tiger's stolen two yards.

Bizarrely, it was Joe Schmidt who found himself accused of 'over-the-top' behaviour for the candour of his Tuesday press conference, a candour almost certainly triggered by Rob Penney's declaration that O'Connell's kick was "nothing really to be concerned about".

That the citing commissioner, Eddie Walsh, had chosen not even to refer the incident to a disciplinary hearing seemed to lean on the rather subjective logic that there had been no intent in the act. This was a betrayal of rugby's most fundamental duty; a duty of care to its players. If a motorist – without intent – runs over a pedestrian, have they no case to answer?

The media consensus seemed to be that Walsh found himself in, as one journalist put it, "a difficult position", given O'Connell's stature and the proximity of Munster's Heineken Cup semi-final. If this is so, he should not have been doing the job.

That said, quite the most depressing appraisal of all came from O'Connell himself. Speaking at a business breakfast on Tuesday, Paul chose to park all the intelligence and iron that have long ennobled him on a rugby field to suggest that the controversy was, effectively, a media confection. Worse, he implied that those critical of him were simply "people looking at it with a blue jersey on".

Coming from one of the manliest Irish sportsmen of all time, this was risible. O'Connell is clearly desperate to make up for lost time on an injury-ravaged season and the hope remains that he can have a big role to play for the Lions this summer in Australia.

But to skew the agenda away from a kick that might have been ruinous to another man's life represented lamentably poor judgment.

In a perverse way, O'Connell's inspiring man-of-the-match performance against Harlequins the week before probably ratcheted the pressure on him even higher to be of Lions-standard against Leinster.

Great players are never sated by big, individual displays. They feel coerced by them to be as good again.


At times on Saturday night, he looked like someone almost trying too hard. Of course, nobody could seriously imagine he intended kicking an opponent in the head. That is not the issue.

The issue is retrospective responsibility. In overlooking a citing, Walsh has unwittingly shone a light on the diseased heart of the disciplinary process here, a process widely parodied by other professional players on social media this week, particularly those in France.

And in choosing to adopt that righteous tone of wounded innocence, O'Connell himself surely made some stomachs churn in the Kearney household, if not beyond.

He'd have been well served this week by humility and contrition, but chose instead to beat a drum. Safe to say, it wasn't Irish rugby's finest week then.

In Montpellier next weekend, we may forgive the watching locals their wry smiles.

Irish Independent

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