Three Becomes One

Gerry was predicting all three Irish provinces were going to progress this weekend, but in a potentially important weekend looking forward to the RCC, it’s moneybags Globo Gym and Toulon who join Munster and Clermont in the semi-finals – the same lineup as last year, and a real credit to Rob Penney to keeping Munster in such august (and far wealthier) company.

If Toulon beat Leinster in an awesome display of power, skill and depth; Saracens were blessed to defeat Ulster on Saturday night, almost letting a 76 minute man advantage slip.

The biggest pity about Jared Payne’s sending off on Saturday night was that it effectively decided what looked like a delicious contest after just four minutes – Saracens’ ineptitude on the game management and place-kicking front allowed Ulster to hang in there, and almost nick it, but it was a nigh-impossible task to win with 14 men for virtually the entire game. Add in injuries for Besty and Pienaar and it’s a minor miracle Ulster were even in search of a drop goal in the closing phases. For that they have to thank an oddly subdued Sarries – Owen Farrell again got the yips when the pressure was on (see Park, Thomond, tearful Saturday night edition, 2012), they seemed content to let Ulster have the ball despite the excellent ball retention on display, and the few times they used the full spaces on offer they scored tries – and the errant boots of their halfbacks.

Billy Vunipola and Schalk Brits were excellent and carried the team, but Farrell and Hodgson offered very little. We won’t talk about Chris Ashton again, but his bird-brained swan dive made Farrell’s first conversion more difficult than it needed to be – it would have been just reward if that proved the difference between winning and losing, but, sadly, the width of a post on Wee PJ’s first penalty determined that one.

Ulster’s remaining 14 men and substitutes were heroic (and arm-wavingly frustrating in one case – no wonder Pienaar remained on the pitch for so long despite an inability to pass the ball) and couldn’t have done much more, but since Payne’s card was the defining moment it is worth dwelling on it for some time. As per usual, the reaction ranged from the moronic (‘Sure Goode was walking around by half-time, clearly wasn’t badly injured, not even a penalty’) to the opportunistic (‘Sure the game had barely started and he didn’t intend Goode to fall on his head, so it’s a penalty and no more’) to the disciplinarian (‘All tackles on English yeoman should be punished by red – why, back in the day these colonials weren’t even allowed to pass a gentleman on the street without a cap-doff’). But it’s worth diving deeper into a few of the more common lines:

  • Both Ulster and Saracens coach and captain agreed it wasn’t a red. Well, Anscombe and Muller would say that wouldn’t they, so let’s leave it there. McCall agreed, but would he have been so magnanimous if Ulster had won? Or if Payne got a yellow and scored the winning try, would he have argued Garces was right? And Borthwick chided the interviewer for not asking if Goode was ok, and more or less said Garces had the right to make that decision.
  • Payne had his eyes on the ball the whole time. This was Muller’s argument to Garces when the incident happened, and it’s undeniable. But does this invalidate any contact? The reality is that Payne made no effort to contest the ball, which is the key point when discussing recklessness – even the lamest attempt to jump would likely have downgraded the dangerous factor in the referee’s eyes. Even if Payne was looking at the ball, he was utterly reckless when it came to the safety of Goode.  His body shape in enetering the contact zone was all wrong, and that was what put Goode at such great risk.
  • The severity of Goode’s injury influenced the decision. We thought this initially, but we aren’t so sure. Sure, the sight of a man being carried off on a stretcher definitely makes the referee feel under more pressure to do something, but think about this scenario. Goode is dazed but sitting up and needed treatment to continue. Garces shows Payne a yellow straight away, then sees the replay on the big screen and summons him back for a red. Far fetched? Not really, it’s exactly what he did to Stuart Hogg in the Six Nations. We’re not saying it would have happened, but it’s definitely a possibility. Garces is a referee who does not shirk these decisions, and he could well have shown a red anyway.  At the very least, it must be accepted that Garces’ decision was based on due consideration, and not a snap-reaction or emotion, because he and the officials took an age over it.
  • There was no intent to injure. There never is, though, is there? He’s not that kind of player, you hear commentators say (except about Dylan Hartley, because he clearly is). But reckless and dangerous play can lead to injuries, and that’s what needs to be stamped out. Player safety needs to be paramount, and outright intention to injure someone (also known as common assault) is rarely the key factor in these decision, nor should it be.  Payne was reckless and dangerous

We saw the same thing after Sam Warburton dumped Vinny Clark on his head in the World Cup – amid the hot air eminating from Gatty and the compliant UK press, Elaine was accused of being “half-French” by Barnesy, and Frankie accused him of ruining the semi-final for the fans. Warbs didn’t intend to paralyse Clerc, nor did he, but his conduct is the type of dangerous play that can leave players in wheelchairs, and for that Rolland sent him off.

The Sky studio were split down the middle, with Quinnell and Greenwood arguing for red and the Irish pair going yellow – and that 50-50 split is about fair. Some referees would show red, some yellow. Garces tends to be strict and he showed red. Even if you think it should have been a yellow card, the red card outcome was definitely in play, and within reason.  We tend to see player safety as the key variable and think, on balance, a red card was just about the right call. When we first saw it, our thoughts were ‘He might just get sent off here’.  Payne will be the most devastated by the turn of events – he effectively cost his team a place in the semi-finals – and one wonders if Ulster were a little too wound up early on. It’s a terrible pity that a team of such potential, full of young Irishmen, won’t get to play for a chance of another final – their display certainly warranted it, and, given a period of transition is on its way with the departure of Court, Afoa and Muller, who knows when they will have as good an opportunity.

When you are climbing a mountain of the type Ulster needed to on Saturday everything must go right, and if Ulster put themselves in a position to win the game, they will regret four missed kicks. When we saw Pienaar, broken wing and all, lining up the first kick at goal, we were screaming at the TV – it was pretty obvious he wasn’ t lasting the 80, so why not give PJ the duties from the start? Pienaar didn’t kick well, and Jackson was left with a sighter in the second half – which hit the post. Them is the margins. Not much went right for Ulster on the night, and Payne’s stupidity was only one part of it. Some day my friends .. some day.

PS. Worry not, Munster fans, we’ll be talking about your team’s awesomeness next.  And sorry, Leinster fans, but we may have to have a chat about events on the south coast of France later in the week, too.

Six Nations: Match Previews

After all the drama surrounding team selections, squad announcements and even refereeing appointments, the small matter of the actual games of Six Nations rugby take place this weekend.  We’re looking forward to it.  Now for the bit where we put ourselves in the firing line and predict what will happen.

Scotland v England

We hummed and we hawed.  We saw the England squad and thought they couldn’t possibly win.  Then we saw the Scotland team, with Dan Parks at 10, and thought they couldn’t possibly win.  Then we cried for a bit thinking about the two hours of our lives we’d each be giving up to watch the blasted game.  Then, finally, we saw the England team and went back to thinking they wouldn’t win.

This one’s all about the New England – new captain, new players, new attitude, new interim coach, new playing style.  The trouble is none of it looks all that great.  Mouritz Botha, Geoff Parling and Phil Dowson are adequate Boshiership journeymen rather than exciting new talents, while England appear to be looking to the least creative of the good sides in the country for their midfield (10 – 13 all Sarries!). Chris Robshaw captains the team, and he’s a good player, but looks a bit knackered and will be out of position on the openside.


Verdict: We’re going for Scotland because we just can’t see how England will be able to deliver the gameplan they’re talking about.  Lancaster says they’re looking to play at a high tempo, but high tempo requires quick ball, and just who is going to serve that up? The Scottish back row will be licking their chops at the lightweight trio England have served up – Scotland to shade a dour affair.

France v Italy

France will be looking to hit the ground running and have every chance of doing so.  They seem to have the right team on the pitch, something they haven’t had for some time.  Louis Picamoles keeps out Harinordoquy in what looks a position of real strength (Fulgence Ouedraogo can’t even make the 22), while Trinh-Duc is welcomed back to the starting line-up, with Beauxis a handy reserve.  All eyes will be on Clermont’s razor-sharp Wesley Fofana, who looks like a potential star of the tournament.

It should all be too much for Italy.  The Italians were poor in the World Cup, and never looked like troubling Ireland or Australia.  They just don’t travel.  Their home games, now in the Stadio Olimpico, will be worth watching and they may try to keep some of their powder dry for England’s arrival there next week.

Verdict: this one is set up for France to rack up some points; we expect them to win by a couple of scores.

Ireland v Wales

Obviously, this is the most interesting game from our perspective. Even before the Welsh squad started dropping like flies, we fancied that this was a game Ireland were targetting – the noises from the squad echo those we heard prior to England in March and Australia in October. Now, with the Welsh down several front-liners, Ireland will be confident as well as motivated.

We foresee an urgent and effective Ireland performance with some tries thrown in. Wales will play a smart game and target our weaknesses (second row in the loose and Earls’ defence at 13) but it won’t be enough. Ireland really want this one, and nearly all the squad go in brimful of confidence after the HEC group stages – stark contrast to Wales.

Verdict: We don’t think Ireland will blow Wales away early like they did to England, but they will have enough. This could be quite high-scoring – the Welsh backs are more than useful – 30-20 or something. Ireland by more than a score