It was the official curtain raiser at new Ravenhill on Friday evening. Signs draped on the grandstand bid the fans to be the 16th man. That was, as it happened, unduly optimistic. Ulster for the second time in short succession had to play the majority of the match with 14 men. In the end a gallant Ulster side lost out 20-22 to an underwhelming Leinster.
The Inter-Pro drummed up the most talking points from this weekend’s rugby. Matt Cassidy summed these up excellently in his PA article but I want to hone in on one phrase that was being tossed around more than Devin Toner; “the letter of the law”.
When the oversized Meath man was hoisted into the air and the referee chose to consult the TMO he asked two questions: was Toner brought “above the horizontal?” and “how did he land?” It is worth mentioning at this stage that the referee for the game was Luke Pearce who was remarkably officiating his first ever RaboPro12 game. Can you imagine such an inexperienced referee being given a game that could potentially decide who qualifies for the play-off stage in any other professional sport? Can you imagine how nervous he was about the post game analysis of his decisions? And can you imagine how intent he was to be correct to “the letter of the law”?
Any decisions he made needed to be grounded in semantics so he could defend them to the referee board, who will ultimately judge his performance. This brings me to the IRB Laws Section 10 (Foul Play) Part 4 (Dangerous Paly and Misconduct) Clause (j)
“Lifting a player from the ground and dropping or driving that player into the ground whilst that player’s feet are still off the ground such that the player’s head and/or upper body come into contact with the ground is dangerous play.
Sanction: Penalty kick”
(Hint: That’s Penalty kick not Automatic Red Card)
This explains the two questions asked by Pearce. But what it does not explain is why every commentator in tandem is saying that by the letter of the law he has to be sent off. It is true that since Sam Walburton saw red at the hand of Alain Rolland in the last World Cup Semi-Final that kind of tackle has been looked upon very harshly. Ulster captain Johann Muller certainly did not agree and remonstrated with the referee for his decision – he knew that from then on Ulster faced an uphill battle that they would be unlikely to overcome. What Court did was certainly foul play, but surely some discretion could have been shown. You can imagine the decision going another way if say Nigel Owens was in charge. Although the Welshman didn’t have his best game in the recent Heineken Cup Semi Final, I am certain that a referee confident in his abilities and not seeking to make a name for himself could have read between the lines, rather than reciting them verbatim.
The show as they say however must go on, and from Ulster’s point of view, if they had to lose one Lion (sigh), better it be Court. Ulster were in trouble with the officials again in the 17th minute when an Ulster man threw a punch, Pearce was again floundering for technicalities (“Did he make contact with the face?”) rather than immediately listening to his touch judge who had actually seen the incident. Another bemusing moment was when, from the ensuing penalty, Leinster were camped on the Ulster line. They were awarded a knock-on advantage and subsequently driven back to the 22. Ample advantage gained according to the debutant official.
When Paddy Jackson dove to score his try in the corner, Rob Kearney’s last ditch effort to push him into touch earned him a yellow. Jackson himself admitted this was due to the height differential rather than any mal-intent. In my opinion though, the decision was made out of a desire to even up the playing field and under extreme pressure from the home crowd. 5 minutes later a second Leinster player, Ruddock joined handsome Rob in the bin. He had the misfortune to trip into Zane Kirchner and bounce into Jackson in the air. Again the referee chose to consult a replay and again the incorrect decision was made. If tripping into a player is a binnable offence, we’re not playing rugby anymore, “the football field is 500 meters that way” as Owens himself might say.
Ulster fought manfully to the end and earned the bonus point they needed to guarantee a spot in the playoffs. They will most likely have a rematch with Leinster over the weekend of the 16th of May for a chance to reach the RaboPro12 final. The way the other results are looking they will face either Munster or Glasgow, one can only hope that the spirit (rather than the letter) of the law will prevail then, when there will be much more on the line.
Brendan Kelly, Pundit Arena.