John Afoa’s enforced absence from the Heineken Cup semi-final is not fair, it’s not right, it’s unnecessary — and it’s downright cruel.
Some might even call it petty-minded. Decide for yourself on that one.
But what is certain is that it is a massive blow to Ulster as a team and Afoa as an individual.
It is gutting for a man who was signed by Ulster in order to boost their prospects of winning silverware that now, having helped them reach the semi-final of the biggest tournament in northern hemisphere club rugby, he will miss out on their Aviva Stadium date with Edinburgh two weeks hence.
Rather than lining out on the pitch against Edinburgh on April 28, he will be one of 40,000 Ulster fans watching from the grandstands.
He’s fit and he’s raring to go, but he will be redundant on the day — and every other day until May 7 — due to having been found guilty of a dangerous tackle after he was cited by a watching official, one Peter Larter.
Munster had no grievance. They accepted the tackle for what it was, namely a big hit by a big man with no malice in it. Monsieur Romain Poite, who refereed Sunday afternoon’s Munster versus Ulster Heineken Cup quarter-final at Thomond Park, saw nothing wrong.
Yet fellow-countryman, Monsieur Jean-Nöel Couraud, in his capacity as independent Judicial Officer at yesterday’s disciplinary hearing in Dublin, saw fit to brand it an offence which merited a red card, an automatic six-week suspension given the middle-range severity status he attached to it plus the imposition of a further week by way of a deterrent.
Then, in view of Afoa’s clean record, good character, age and experience the Judicial Officer lopped three weeks off to finish up with a ban of four weeks duration.
When one reflects on the fact that spear tackles which gave rise to Law 10.4 (j) — “lifting a player from the ground and either dropping or driving that player’s head and/or upper body into the ground whilst the player’s feet are off the ground” — followed an outrageous two-man hit on Brian O’Driscoll whilst on tour in New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions in 2005, one can only wonder how these two things can be seen as comparable.
Afoa’s tackle on Felix Jones was nothing like the assault on O’Driscoll. The Munster full-back was neither dropped nor driven into the ground.
He was upended in a hard tackle, but certainly not a dirty one.
Rugby is a physical game and because it is, the laws governing it are enforced rigorously. For the safety of those playing, it is right that they should be.
But when two big men collide at speed — Afoa is 6ft and 18st 8lbs, Jones is 6ft but at 13st 11lbs almost 5st lighter — the norm is that the smaller of the pair is forced backwards and sometimes upwards. That is not foul play — it is simple physics.
Afoa did not make the tackle from the side, he met his man head-on. He did not drop him, he did not let him go, he did not drive him to the ground. He did none of the things normally associated with foul or dangerous play.
Former Ulster and Ireland centre Maurice Field summed it up well when he said: “In the context of the game and in the context of how the game is played it was an exceptionally good tackle.
“John Afoa has been the cornerstone of Ulster’s performances in where they’ve got to and he will be crucially missed in the next four weeks.”
He will, because now he is going to miss out on the critical phase of Ulster’s push for honours on two fronts.
I repeat what I said at the outset: it is not fair, it’s not right, it’s unnecessary and it’s cruel. Some might even call it petty-minded. Decide for yourself on that one.