In our lead photo this week you can see the two number 19s Leo Cullen and James King contesting a lineout. The reason they were both on the pitch relatively early is pretty much the reason this match fizzled out into an anti-climax from the neutral’s standpoint so I may as well harp on that incident to begin with.
There’s no denying it, rugby is a tough contact sport and no matter how hard the powers that be work to formulate the Laws of the Game there will always be an extremely blurred line between what’s considered acceptable and what isn’t.
Right from the opening kickoff, for example, we had Jamie Heaslip catching the high Dan Biggar drop kick only to be met by a crunching hit from Ian Evans which included his forearm wrapped around the Leinster captain’s throat. Not a single peep from anyone clad in blue, nor should there have been…not a high dangerous tackle, just a statement of intent from the test lock and you would hope for nothing less to begin what has become an intense rivalry over the past few seasons.
Move the clock along towards the end of the first quarter, with the scores delicately locked at 3 apiece. The visitors have a lineout at halfway, and Evans takes the catch cleanly. In the process, Leinster’s Mike McCarthy attempts to disrupt/bring down the maul as he and most other locks in a similar situation would try to do, but he is unsuccessful and finds himself alone on the ground with a well-set-up Ospreys maul marching forward over him.
It’s not exactly a pretty sight to see the Welsh pack’s studs raking across his back as they step over him, but anyone who knows the game understands that it’s part and parcel. So just that we’re clear, I have no problem with that aspect of what happened, and I’d safely say neither did Mike - once on the ground he pretty much knew what to expect.
The thing about raking, however, is that when done “properly” it is something you can control. You’re focused on driving forward, and in the process you leave a little calling card for the prone opponent. Leinster would no doubt do the same if the situation was reversed.
But now we go back to that blurred line. When something goes well beyond it, that is when we need to step in and take action.
As the lineout catcher, Evans was facing away from the Leinster line with his pack driving the other way. So as he stepped backwards and felt a body underneath him, he should have done what he could to step over it and let his team-mates apply the “punishment”. Instead, as the replay clearly shows, he makes a concerted effort to stamp his considerably-sized boot downward.
Although he is looking down, I am giving him the benefit of the doubt that he couldn’t actually see McCarthy’s head. If that were the case, we’d surely have to be banning this guy for life. But that doesn’t mean the fact that the stamp wasn’t directed is all that much better, since there is no way of telling what damage could have been done.
So as you can probably tell, I reckon the red card was absolutely the right call as far as this match was concerned, and longer term I reckon the citing commissioner should go “knock-knockin on Evans’ door” to apply a further ban, if for no other reason than his own safety so he doesn’t come to Dublin in week 2 of the Six Nations!
As a side note I was baffled by Sky’s coverage of the incident…it happened right in front of my seat and McCarthy stood there blood streaming down his face before us - although I understand why TV director wouldn’t wish to show that actual visual, how the commentators didn’t notice I’ll never know - in fact Miles Harrison actually said this during the third or fourth replay… “Wasn’t to the head region, which was relevant”.
Thankfully going by the shot of McCarthy towards the end the damage was nowhere near as bad as first feared. From the looks of him at the time I thought he was doomed to a Joker-type scar!
Look - for the umpteenth time on this blog I feel the need to point out that I’m against ANY type of behaviour that’s over the top, so I’ll first remind you of previous offences by Leinster players (albeit in Ireland jerseys) matches such as Heaslip on McCaw, Healy on Cole, and O’Driscoll on Favaro. None of them acceptable.
The reason I mention those is to avoid a backlash when I say that this particular incident reminded me more of O’Connell on DKearney (for the recklessness) and Hayes on Healy (similar situation and last red card at the RDS to my knowledge). Overall point - when the severity of the offence gets to those levels, it shouldn’t matter who the player is or what matches lie around the corner.
But let me take advantage of the mention of Cian Healy’s name to get back to the actual rugby action on the night. Despite his 52-minute shift he was well worthy of his man-of-the-match award for keeping Adam Jones at bay at scrum time even before the red card, for his usual standard of ball-carrying and of course for crashing over the line for the second try.
That was the score that pretty much broke the ice for Leinster - though we struggled to cross the whitewash no matter how much advantage we had numbers-wise, it has to be said that for the bulk of the contest the Ospreys worked hard to keep us out, forced as they were into making around double the amount of tackles over the 80 minutes.
Of course the Leinster backline wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders and it wasn’t for the first time this season either…by rights given the talent we had on the park and the extra man, the Ospreys should have been served a “fifty-burger” with all the trimmings and a side order of fries.
But in what descended into a scrappy almost farcical contest with players going off & back on, penalty tries, uncontested scrums and blood substitutions (the Saints/Castres match which kicked off at the same time ended with the RDS clock still at 70m), I reckon as a home crowd we should be happy our our lot…this time last year we were coming to terms with an Amlin quarterfinal; now although a trip to the home of the reigning champions certainly won’t be easy, if this tweet from Clérmont’s Nathan Hines is anything to go by, Toulon won’t be relishing our visit either.
None of those three stars over our crest were won with 9, 8, or even 7 perfect performances. This was by far the toughest of the six pools and Matt O’Connor led his side to the top of it with five points to spare. We still can’t ignore that there were some decent displays put together on the night…Eoin Reddan and Luke Fitzgerald have definitely found form at the right time of the season while Zane Kirchner and Jordi Murphy both looked lively off the bench.
It certainly wasn’t BOD’s best night at the office…I’m a firm believer in playing the match you’re in rather than holding back for ones down the road, but in his case the consequences of a serious injury were more catastrophic than most, particularly for fans hoping to see him in Six Nations action one more time.
And on the subject of injuries, what an amazing sight it was to see Richardt Struass sprinting back onto the field of battle months ahead of expectation. Full credit to all involved in both his surgery and rehab, definitely a top-notch job and a timely boost for the squad.
As for the Ospreys, more disappointment for them on the European front but for the sake of the game there as well as here I hope the Welsh can sort out their still considerable mess…with 4 Celtic League titles and an EDF Cup (you could almost call them the “head region”? OK, maybe I’m reaching…) they have been the exception to the general rule of regional rugby and I’d love to see our yearly battles continue down the line.
With the exception of Evans’ moment of madness and despite the final score, there were some good outings from the likes of Sam Davies and Rhys Webb (who might have seen yellow for second pen try but tackled well). Fingers crossed those pesky birds will grace this great competition once more.
Meanwhile the field of 24 has been whittled down to eight, and what an eight it is. Full kudos to both Ulster & Munster for also topping their pools, and despite their weekend hammering Connacht certainly did themselves proud overall. No doubt the presence of three provinces in the quarterfinals will help the momentum of the clearly anti-Irish sentiment looking to pick the competition apart.
But as far as this year’s instalment (ironically ending in Cardiff) goes, despite the away quarterfinal, with the likes of Strauss back and with Sean and (fingers eyes and toes still crossed) Jamie only headed to Toulon to wear blue, anyone who suggests Leinster aren’t in with a decent shout of picking up star number four needs their own head region tested. JLP
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Also this weekend
Northampton Saints 13 - 3 Castres
Cardiff Blues 13 - 19 Exeter Chiefs
Leicester Tigers 19 - 22 Ulster
Montpellier 24 - 6 Benetton Treviso
Perpignan 18 - 36 Gloucester Rugby
Clermont Auvergne 28 - 3 Racing Metro
British & Irish Cup
Ealing Trailfinders 13-14 Leinster A