Sean O’Brien Slap Happy

It’s not often we find ourselves in agreement with Scottish officials – they have visited a few wretched referees on us –  but citing commissioner Dougie Hunter deserves the Common Sense Award of the Week. Leinster could easily be planning for their Magners Leage semi-final against Ulster, and the Heineken Cup final against Northampton, without their star back rower if Hunter had called it differently.

“In my opinion, Sean O’Brien was denied the opportunity to make a try-saving tackle on Louis Picamoles,” Joe Schmidt told us on Friday night after the win over Glasgow. “I don’t know if citing commissioners take that into account.”

They do. To recap: O’Brien was impeded by Yannick Nyanga as Toulouse attacked off the back of a five metre scrum in the second half in Aviva last weekend. And the foul play worked, for the first question you asked yourself when number eight Picamoles scored was, where the hell was O’Brien?

The replay explained exactly where – struggling to escape Nyanga’s grasp. And it also showed him lashing out and catching the French flanker in the face. Whereupon he went down in a heap.

Since then comparisons have been drawn with the Paul O’Connell incident earlier in the tournament. That day in Thomond Park, O’Connell lashed out behind him and caught Ospreys flanker Jonathan Thomas who was illegally dragging out of the Munster second row. O’Connell was cited and banned for four weeks.

There were two fundamental differences in the cases, both of which would have been considered by Hunter when deciding there was no reason to pursue O’Brien. First, Nyanga was actively trying to prevent a try being scored unlike Thomas – 40 metres from his own line – whose motivation was to annoy O’Connell. Both evidently succeeded but they were on different missions.

Second, O’Brien’s contact with Nyanga was relatively minor. O’Connell didn’t have a closed fist but he managed to give Thomas a good slap. So in O’Connell’s case was there was a real effect to his action.

It could easily have gone south for O’Brien but the case raises the issue of how players should react when being restrained illegally by opponents. It happens in every game, typically at a scrum where a scrumhalf or flanker is dragged back. How often have you seen them look to the touch judge and get no protection? So mostly they try and break the bind with an ineffective downward motion with the elbow, and play goes on. If they take more direct action they risk citing and whatever might follow that.

Is it easy to eradicate? Of course. A penalty regardless of where it happens, and a yellow card if it happens in the red zone. And it would stop overnight. In which case the likes of O’Brien would not be tempted to run the risk of a ban, and citing commissioners like Dougie Hunter would not have to ride to the rescue.


About Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning has been involved in rugby all of his life as a player, coach and journalist. He has been rugby correspondent on the Sunday Independent since 1996, and has been reporting on the game since the mid 1980s when he stopped playing with Clontarf. In 2007 his book From There to Here, a definitive account of Ireland’s transition from amateur to professional rugby, was published to critical acclaim.
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