Munster’s fate should have been sealed

Now that the ink is dry on Munster’s 41 Phases being written into their glorious history, is it safe to suggest that they should never have got past phases three or five?

 This has less to do with them and more to do with the way the game is refereed. There were two forces at work here: the first is the reluctance of any referee to give a match-winning penalty in the endgame. This is understandable but unacceptable. It’s like a player refusing to put himself forward and take responsibility for fear of failure. Imagine for example if Ronan O’Gara had gone AWOL when his forwards were slaving away trying to work a drop goal position for him.

  The second is the virtual refusal of the same refs to implement a law that is fundamental to having a fair contest for possession, and which is at the very heart of rugby – namely staying on your feet at the breakdown. Or at least trying to do so.

Paddy O’Brien’s inability to make any progress on this issue, despite pre World Cup promises that ‘sealing off’ would not be tolerated by refs, is the most compelling reason why he should resign his position as manager of referees in the IRB.

There are lots of things about the breakdown that are hard to spot in real time. Players going immediately off their feet with the express intention of making the ball unplayable for the opposition is not one of them.

Rewind the 41 Phases video and ask yourself how any referee who wasn’t hell bent on avoiding something controversial could possibly allow John Hayes do what he did in the third and fifth stages of the sequence.

I don’t know what the relationship is between Hayes and his hooker Damien Varley, but it must be pretty close. Twice Varley took the ball up and was tackled, and twice Hayes smothered him so effectively that the prop couldn’t have acted with more alacrity had be been out in the park with his child and automatic gunfire suddenly rang out. Referee Nigel Owens was perfectly positioned both times. He did nothing.

 I’ve asked a few refs if this action, which we see at every other tackle, is legal, and there is unanimity that it isn’t. And yet nobody can come up with a credible explanation as to why it isn’t refereed. Doing so would require some effort on the part of players and coaches to break a bad habit, but it would be easier than the shift in accommodating the ELVs, and would restore some fairness to the contest after the tackle.

I sent the sequence to Paddy O’Brien asking him why his refs apparently have no appetite for cleaning this up, and giving us back one of the key criteria that once separated rugby union from league. He looked at it and responded as follows:

“Had a look and get your point. It will always come down to whether this infringing has been occurring the whole match or was just in these last phases. A referee would not be expected to penalise something he had not penalised all match but certainly sealing off is part of the game we have asked the International Panel to be vigilant on.”

There is nothing worse than the first ‘crooked feed’ call from a ref coming in the 80th minute – which is perhaps why Nigel allowed Tomas O’Leary fire it into the back row to get the sequence started – but what sometimes happens is that in the opening minutes refs blow one or two players for ‘sealing off’ and then forget about it, and gradually we’re back to where we started.

And evidently Paddy O’Brien’s request of the international panel to be vigilant is going unheeded. Is it really that hard to figure out?


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.
This entry was posted in IRB, Irish Rugby, Munster, Munster Rugby, Rugby Opinion, Rugby World Cup and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Munster’s fate should have been sealed

  1. Brian says:

    On the other hand, why no criticism of Pearson for penalizing Remy Martin in the dying minutes of the Leinster game?

    I am not arguing your point vis a vis Munster but it never ceases to amaze me how one-sided is your focus. Let’s be honest, for years Cullen and Leinster have been getting away with blatant obstruction at rucks. In fact, virtually every team gets away with taking incoming defenders out at rucks. Have you ever sent such clips to PO’B for comment?

    • Why would I criticise Pearson for doing what Owens wouldn’t do? And I couldn’t give a toss if Leinster cheat more or less than Munster, the reason I highlighted the Hayes flopping is that it’s the worst I’ve seen at such an important point in a huge game….and refs refuse to deal with it.

      • Brian says:

        But would you have highlighted it if it was eg Ross? You referred to O’Leary’s scrum feed. What about Northampton’s skew feeds?

        And why have you NOT referred Leinster cheating (when it happens) to O’Brien?

        For the record, Pearson got his call totally wrong.

  2. Eoin Daly says:

    maybe this explains why it is nigh on impossible to Win away from home as the Ref only looks at the away team- on another point have you noticed how teams are now defending effectively against Irish teams notably Walves V ireland and Montpelier V Leinster- First up tackles around the bootlaces and second man drives over the man and ball making it impossible for Irish to ruck- Montpelier were obviously studying the video of how to stop Heaslip/O Brien

  3. Tate says:

    Hard to disagree with this, but southern hemisphere teams, particularly one playing in black, have been doing this for years and never been penalised. Can’t see why it would start in Thomond Park.

    On the 5th phase you can see Hayes holding his chest off the ground, like he were at the top of a push-up. Could this create a technical space through which an opponent could clear him out? Assuming of course the opponent has or is a fork lift.

  4. Alan Kelly says:

    Excellant article, rules are rules and should be enforced evenly in all games. I am a Leinster supporter but also love to see all other Irish teams doing well, but the Munster whingeing is starting to wear. Good luck to all next weekend.

  5. Beirut Bill says:

    Hi Brendan, Thanks for your most interesting insights – hopefully, all balanced rugby folk have got over the ‘who-ha’ over the red card given to the Wales captain in the RWC, especially now that he is reported as accepting the right decision was made on the day.

    On other refering matters, the ref panels for the upcoming 6 Nations have been announced, to give panel members the opportunity to focus on their respective tasks (so claims Paddy O’Brien) -have you notiiced that Jonathan Kaplan (SA) has not received any appointment for the 6 Nations – anything to do with his performance at the RWC I wonder? However, his touch judge Paul Allen of Scotland has been awarded as touch judge to officiate at one of the games – yes indeed, he being the touch judge who allowed a different ball to be used by Wales for their try winning score last March – Do we ever learn I ask???????

  6. gaiusc says:

    *Can’t wait to read Brendan’s whinge this week*

    • rooster says:

      thats why I dont buy the rag anymore. Besides him, the other ” GREAT” writers Niel Francis, George “The Kick” Hook. To say the least, they are sad people

  7. Patrick Logan says:

    Now you mention it, the Bull does spend an inordinate amount of time prostrate. I entirely agree with your sentiment and in your recent Independent piece about policing the back foot. The refs just need to brief the players before the match, ping a few early doors, insist on a straight feed and the game should be improved. Nigel Owens in particular seems very quick to call the crooked line out (the hardest skill to perfect) whilst allowing scrum halves to feed the ball parallel rather than perpendicular to the touch line.

    As an aside, what is it with Munster and Leinster fans? I am an Ulster fan and support all 4 provinces. It’s just that when Ulster come up against any of the other 3 I will support the province of my birth (naturally).

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