There's no denying that derby matches bring the enjoyment we get out of team sports to a different level.
But when you throw in the emotion of a team captain possibly playing in front of his home fans for the last time, the official opening of a magnificent new set of stands, plus of course what happened a few weeks ago against Saracens, you get a level that the sport may not yet have reached, even though this was to all intents and purposes “just another Pro12 fixture”.
And since my official description of HarpinOnRugby is as a “fan site” as opposed to “blog”, I need to have a high level of appreciation for the way a typical supporter of any club, not just Leinster, would view a particular match.
So we have to expect there to be a narrative stemming from Friday night's match in Ravenhill which suggests Ulster were victims of another gross injustice which led to a heartbreaking home defeat. I can't really expect them to look at the game in any other way.
Of course it could be said that if I even try to make a case against that notion, it would be through my own blue goggles. I guess all I can do is have a go at calling the match as I saw it and let everyone else's goggles see it as they wish.
First and foremost, allow me to put my head above the parapet and deal with the Tom Court decision, which most certainly defined the match, the first in the competition for Luke Pearce. He’s considered a big deal by the RFU by the way, though he has had his share of controversy in the past (but what ref hasn’t?).
Derby matches don't just fire up the fans...if players have any sense of loyalty to the jersey they're wearing it should raise their own game by an extra few percentage points as well. And clearly Court was fired up for this contest...it wasn't even a minute old when he conceded a pen for blatantly blocking Ian Madigan after the Leinster out-half chipped it forward.
So there was no doubting he was playing with the intensity you want to see from your players. But did that intensity mean he intended to drive Devin Toner into the ground and hurt him? Absolutely not.
But here's the problem – referees need guidelines, and never more so that when it comes to player safety. And in certain areas of the game, the law makers have had to come up with technical legal frameworks with which the officials can make their decisions. The trouble with doing that is...specific situations will always provide exceptions.
On our journey from the incident to the decision, we MUST take all of the derby/new Ravenhill/Jared Payne emotion out of the equation if we ever hope to be reasonable about it. For me, doing my best to be objective, I think there are two key aspects to the referee's final decision. (1) When Tom had him in the air, he did not stop driving, and (2) The referee determined, with the agreement of the TMO I might add, that Toner landed on his neck.
The laws are quite clear for both as far as I saw it – red card. I would actually argue with the “landed on neck” determination though – for as you can see by the photo, Toner's first contact with the ground was with his arm. But once the ref saw it as neck, he had to produce red, and once he explains the thinking behind his decision I'm not sure there's much more we can do.
The thing is though...his explanations for decisions weren't quite so clear for the rest of the match. And here is where the Ulster victimisation narrative doesn't hold sway. Like I say, I totally understand why the home fans were fired up and although many rugby fans abhor booing I can appreciate the frustration that brought it for every subsequent decision that went against the home side.
But while the Court decision wasn't the only controversial one that went against the home side on the night, if you try to suggest that the only injustices were going in one direction, then there is no point having a discussion because you're not dealing with all the facts.
From the sending off to the final whistle, there was no way another Ulster player was going to see any kind of card no matter what they did. As we will see, Leinster were no angels either, but a punch thrown by Nick Williams was ignored, Tommy Bowe jumping into Devin Toner while he was in the air for a restart was ignored, plus there were multiple penalties at scrum time which the visitors were dominating even when 15 v 15.
Add to this lesser offences like BOD being pinged for not rolling away when he wasn't the tackler and Jamie Heaslip for not releasing after tackle even though Johann Muller had him in a crocodile death roll on the ground, and you see that the poor decisions were not all going in one direction. I totally understand why we're normally perceived as the “bad guys” these days, but that doesn't mean we're not just as entitled to point out bad calls.
Still...Rob Kearney's tackle on Paddy Jackson was definitely an extremely dangerous one which also could have seen red. I personally thought he was gone. But this highlights the trouble with these “IRB directives”. By tacking them onto the official Laws of the Game you end up making some types of dangerous play more “important” than others.
If we're saying Tom had no intent to harm then we should afford the same to Rob. He tried to grab Jackson by the shoulders to drag him into touch but missed. It looked extremely dangerous but unlike the spear tackle I'm not so sure there's a directive which tells the ref to “start at red and work backwards”.
And it perhaps wouldn't hurt to give the referee the opportunity to award a penalty try even if the attacking player actually grounds the ball....the penalty should stem from the attempt to prevent rather than the attempt succeeding. The difference in the conversion ultimately led to the difference in the result.
Of course not to be outdone, the “jumping in the air” thing also came into play. Again, a bizarre set of circumstances. Kirchner had kicked the garryowen. He kept his eyes on it. Jackson jumped to catch it. But Ruddock ran into Kirchner's line and ended up getting pushed into Jackson. How the bloody hell do you make sense of that?
But having deemed it foul play, what the ref said was that it was yellow because Jackson didn't land on his neck. Actually I thought his landing was similar to Toner's but there you go.
Anyway...of course some Ulster fans wanted red both times. And as I have shown, a case can be made for them. But we must never forget the importance of viewing each incident separately. Three areas of the game were covered in what was a mesmerizing first half of action. The spear tackle, the high tackle and the tackle in the air. A decision for one must not be determined by a decision for another, and we certainly shouldn't take into account something that happened weeks ago even if it’s against the same team in the same stadium.
Bottom line for me...until the IRB works with coaches, referees and players to produce clarity across the board with regard to this kind of foul play, we're going to have many more matches like this one, of that we can be sure.
That's all for this week's edition of Rugby Law & Order : Dangerous Tackles Unit. How about the actual rugby?
Ian Madigan had the game by the scruff of the neck (maybe that's an unfortunate phrase?) right up to the minute he tried to chip the ball forward and had it blocked by Paddy Jackson which led to the try. From then on the Leinster offence struggled, as it has on several occasions this season. Plus Madigan's placekicking radar was left back in Dublin, so it wasn't the best night for him.
But before we get too big on Paddy Jackson as the “victor” in this battle-of-backup-Irish-10s, he wasn't exactly at the top of his game either.
While Madigan struggled from the tee, Jackson had a poor night from the hand with penalties not finding touch and a restart not going 10. And the struggling offence thing applied to both sides...remember, though history will compare this match to the Saracens one in that Ulster were a man down for most of the contest, in actual fact the home side had an extra man for most of the final 10 minutes of the first half.
Here is where I felt Leinster had the edge on the night, and might have even deserved the win. The lone Ulster try came from broken play but otherwise they could not find a way through the blue D whether there was 13, 14 nor 15 on the park. Some great post-tackle work by the likes of Jennings, D’Arcy and McCarthy seem to have been lost in first-half controversy-fest.
Meanwhile down the other end, thanks to a typically brilliant offload by Brian O'Driscoll, Shane Jennings was put in space and Paddy Jackson will not enjoy reviewing the ease with which he was dummied by a veteran flanker, but his team-mates around him didn't cover themselves in glory with their tackling either as Jenno went over.
So although Leinster themselves took a lot of criticism afterwards, I'm not so sure it was all negative. A solid defensive display plus the ability to keep the discipline to get through over a dozen phases to close out a 2-point lead at the end are qualities you want to have in your squad as the calendar moves into May.
There is no doubt that we will have to find more creative ways to unlock defences, though. I got the impression that we stuck to our gameplan despite the extra man and maybe more creative options would have gotten a better reward.
Having said that, I am certain of one thing. Matt O'Connor must stick with Ian Madigan until the end of the season. He has stuck with Goppperth after poor displays before, and with just three matches left in the season, not only does Mads need the game time before the summer tour, we surely cannot afford to chop and change anymore.
There is a very good chance Leinster will face Ulster again this season. If so, obviously I hope my boys in blue come out on top, but my secondary hope is that it is done in a way which everyone can say is “fair and square”. With the laws & directives as they are however, I won't hold my breath. JLP
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