Johne Murphy … Zhonnee Moorfee … Nul Points

It’s that time of the year again – awards time, when professionals get to tell each other how great they are, and everyone can feel good about themselves no matter how rubbish they are – even London Samoa get to have a player of the year.

Over in Blighty, Ooooooooohh Brad Barritt and Ooooooooohh Jordan Turner-Hall get to fight it out with Oooooooooohh Matt Banahan for Most Over-rated Bosher, in France Lionel Beauxis and David Skrela compete for Most Disappointing Ten, and over here in Ireland, rank parochialism means the usual provincial carve-up of the big prizes.

The process is that a committee at IRUPA pick 3 names and the players vote along provincial lines for their choice. This year’s nominees for the Big Boys Cup were Fez, Bob and Radge; and for the Toddlers Prize its O’Mahoney, Gilroy and Madigan. Tiernan O’Halloran would doubtless have got nominated were he not based in (Hell or) Connacht, but it would be hard to find fault with the nominees, with one caveat – ROG.

A bit like the nomination of Piri Weepu for IRB Player of the Year, the nomination of ROG seems to be based purely on column inches – the man’s preference for the dramatic has played in his favour. We’re not naive enough to think that the committee didn’t just select the best Munster player (in their eyes), but it’s a bit of a farce – O’Gara is still a fine, massively important player for Munster, but this hasn’t been a vintage year for him, late drop goals aside.

ROG had an ok World Cup – playing better than Sexton in the group stages, but having an utter shocker in the quarter-final. In the HEC, his impact was huge, but more due to dramatic fireworks than sustained excellence.  He spluttered rather than strutted at times in the group round, along with the rest of the team and conspicuously failed to fire against Ulster. He was a peripheral figure in the Six Nations, where he didn’t start any games and didn’t score a single point.  There were a few more deserving contenders within Munster:

  • Paul O’Connell. Superman wears Paul O’Connell pyjamas etc. Well, he probably does after this year. O’Connell seemed to be carrying Munster on his shoulders at times this season, and was comfortably their stand-out player in the HEC. At international level, he continues to astound – like the best locks these days (Bakkies, Shawsy, Nallet, Thorn), he appears to be peaking in his early 30s. Long may this last.
  • Keith Earls. Played like a drain in the World Cup warm-ups, then like silk in the group stages, before missing 5 of 8 tackles against the Welsh. Come 6N time, he grew into you-know-who (© G Thornley)’s shirt and has (finally) shown some real development as a player – his (and the Irish 13 jumper’s) future looks brighter than it did in August.
  • Donnacha Ryan. Displaced Stakhanov from the Munster HEC team, and has added some aggression and dog to the pack that the newbies behind him have yet to develop, excepting POM. Had a curious Six Nations, in which he was a contender for Ireland’s player of the tournament, yet failed to displaced Teacher’s Pet despite being laughably superior. It would be remiss, however, not to mention that it’s unlikely Big Jim, Johann Muller or James Horwill would be speared by their opposite numbers.

Still, at least ROG’s nomination gave David Kelly the chance to erroneously claim that it meant O’Gara’s peers rated him higher than Sexton, and it has given us a reason to rant. We can only assume the committee used the following criteria:

  • Impact at international level (5%)
  • Impact in Heineken Cup (25%)
  • Impact on fawning domestic media (25%)
  • Impact on YouTube viewing figures (45%)

By that logic, Tom Croft is the best player in the world. To balance the ledger, let us show you the reason ROG is on the list – note: we think its official to refer to this as epic…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BFJ65Og3A2o

P.S. at the Sunday Times round table, one of the panellists said that referees were given a notification to clamp down on sealing off and players going in off their feet after that game – it’s not the first time Munster’s sealing tactics have resulted in a new diktat from on high.  You can’t but be impresssed by Munster’s ability to bend the game to their will, but while they may have won the Northampton battle, they lost the Ulster war partly thanks to Paddy O’Brien being distinctly unamused at Owens’ home-towning.

Chop Their Hands Off!

Last week saw two shameful cop outs by the disciplinary authorities in Blighty – firstly Dylan Hartley got 8 weeks for biting Fez, then Calum Clark got 32 weeks for his appalling breaking hyperextension of Rob Hawkins’ elbow. Both were below the lowest estimate of most pundits, and both are far too short, particularly in Clark’s case.

Hartley was cited for biting the finger of Fez, which carries a minimum sentence of 12 weeks and a maximum of 4 years. Hartley got the minimum, then got 4 weeks knocked off for his past record. The same record that involved a 6 month ban for gouging in 2007. We know that was 5 years ago and Hartley has grown up a little, but if you gouge a fellow professional’s eye, that is something that, in our view, you should carry around forever – like the criminal record you would get if you did it off the rugby pitch. Additionally, and amazingly, the committee thought it appropriate and relevant to take Graham Rowntree’s confession that Hartley might soon be England captain into account – so much for balance.

[Aside: The practise of knocking a few weeks off a players ban for their good behaviour / past record / fearsome QC is a recipe for booting the can away – plus, like benchmarking, it only works one way; Felon Armitage gets suspended all the time and his record never appears to count against him]

Conveniently, the English starting hooker will be available for their tour to South Africa – Hartley will miss 3 regular season games with the Saints, and probably a play off semi final, and get to put his feet up after a tough year then hop on a plane for Cape Town – it would almost make you want to chomp on someone’s finger!

Moving on from bad to terrible, what Calum Clark did to Rob Hawkins was the worst thing we have ever seen on the sports field – Clark claimed he did not intend to injure Hawkins, but that is frankly laughable – what did he think was going to happen when he did what he did? He broke a fellow professional’s arm and has put his career in jeopardy. If he replicated his actions 10 metres away in the stand at Sixways, he would be doing 2 to 3 years at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Yet the beaks in charge deemed the offence worthy of 32 weeks, a ban which includes the summer, so is effectively half that. He will miss 3 league games for Saints, a potential play-off, about 7 rounds of early-season rugby next year, 2 HEC games and a chance to tour in June. All told, its 13 games of rugby. And he, too, will be back just in time for some England games – in November, if they choose to select him.

The Clark video is here, but (genuinely) look away now if you have the squeams:

The Man has missed a chance to send a real message clamping down on the type of stuff that should be eliminated from the sport for good – they have been letting dirty players away with this stuff ever since the book was thrown at Julien Dupuy and David Attoub for gouging (ironically) Fez in 2009 – Attoub got 70 weeks (higher because …. oh, yeah, he had done it before) and Dupuy 24, reduced to 23 on appeal. These seemingly draconian, but utterly merited, bans were themselves somewhat of a reaction to the puny 8 weeks Schalk Burger got for fiddling with Luke Fitzgerald’s cornea. Those who gouge, bite or intentionally injure a player should pay a very heavy price. Clark should be gone until the end of next season and Hartley until November.

Contrast this to recent happenings across the pond. The NFL has been investigating the New Orleans Saints (Superbowl winners in 2011) for running a “bounty” system where defensive players and their coaches contributed cash to a fund which paid out bonuses if opposition players happened to get injured on the field of play.

The sanctions for the coaches have just been announced, and the NFL has thrown the book at the Saints – the defensive coach has been banned from the sport indefinitely, the head coach for a year and 2 assistant coaches for 14 games in total (a season is 16 games). The penalties for the players have yet to be announced as the NFL Players Association is still conducting a parallel enquiry, but there are already calls for Jonathan Vilma, one of the main protagonists, to be banned for life. Vilma is a teak-tough linebacker who has been selected for the Pro Bowl (All Star game in effect) 3 times – think Bakkies.

Can you imagine any of the rugby authorities banning a big name for good for intentionally injuring someone? The NFL Commissioner is hell-bent on ridding the game of dirty play, and his stance is to be applauded, and should he held up as mirror to the wet blanket attitude over here.