Willie Anderson, the former Ulster and Ireland forward powerhouse, spoke for the whole of the province in expressing his surprise at the severity of the sentence — a four-week ban — given to John Afoa.
That was the sentence imposed on the Ulster tight-head at yesterday’s ERC disciplinary hearing in Dublin after he was cited for a dangerous tackle in Sunday’s Heineken Cup quarter-final victory over Munster at Thomond Park.
“I wasn’t expecting anything like that,” Anderson said. “I thought that if there had been anything in it the referee would have pinged him at the time, particularly as it happened out in the open which means he would have seen it.
“If a referee is happy and saw nothing wrong then I don’t like to see players being cited afterwards.
“I suppose it’s just something we have to live with these days. The game is far more high-profile than it used to be so there are more people watching than ever before.
“That means they don’t want anything that could be viewed as dangerous. And with the game at this level being all about players’ livelihoods, they are very strict in their enforcement of the law.
“Afoa is a big loss and they are going to miss him, no doubt about that. But I still think they should be okay against Edinburgh provided they don’t beat themselves.
“You would still have to fancy Ulster, but they’re going to have to earn the right to be in the final by beating Edinburgh. That’s no formality. Brads (Michael Bradley) will have a trick or two up his sleeve, so Ulster needn’t think that a place in the final is a given just because they have home advantage.
“It doesn’t always work out that way — and Ulster, of all people, should know that having just beaten Munster at Thomond Park.
“Their performance showed that an away team, in the right mood, can beat the favourites on their own pitch.
“Clermont showed that against Saracens, too, so there are no guarantees just because you have home advantage.
“Ulster need to focus on the job in hand and provided they do they should still win that semi-final. But Afoa is a loss.”
Afoa will miss Ulster’s PRO12 games against Connacht, Leinster and Munster and, in between the last two of those three inter-pros, that all-important Heineken Cup semi-final against Edinburgh.
The Scots will be delighted not to have to face the former All Black who was on Ulster front row duty in each of the Celtic cousins’ two PRO12 meetings since Christmas.
Ulster registered bonus point victories in both, winning 42-20 at Murrayfield on January 6 and 38-16 on March 2 at Ravenhill where their six-try tally included a penalty try awarded by referee Nigel Owens for repeated scrum infringements by the visitors close to their own line.
Tight-head Afoa, who was a key figure in Edinburgh’s misery in the scrum that night, yesterday was found guilty of a dangerous tackle on Munster full-back Felix Jones in Sunday’s Heineken Cup quarter-final at Thomond Park.
The Judicial Officer, France’s Jean-Nöel Couraud, upheld the charge brought by Citing Commissioner, England’s Peter Larter.
Monsieur Couraud ruled that the offence warranted a red card, and employing the IRB recommended sanctions for Law 10.4(j) he felt it to have been of mid-range severity, the penalty for which is a six-weeks ban. He then added a further one week “as a deterrent”.
However, in view of the mitigating factors — Afoa’s clean record, good character, age and experience — the Judicial Officer allowed a reduction of three weeks, resulted in him imposing a four-weeks suspension.
Afoa will be free to return to action on Monday, May 7 and although the ban could be appealed Ulster will not pursue that course of action.
Asked if it was their intention to contest the verdict, Ulster Rugby’s media officer Lyndsey Irwin’s one-word reply was: “No.”
The post-quarter final complaint against Afoa was neither proposed nor pressed by Munster, but by the Citing Commissioner.
Prior to the hearing Munster’s media officer, Pat Geraghty, stressed: “It was the Citing Commissioner who drove this; Munster did not make any issue of it.”
Monsieur Couraud heard submissions from Afoa himself, his legal representative Donal Spring and ERC Disciplinary Officer, Roger O’Connor, who presented the case for the prosecution.
Afoa was accompanied by Ulster’s Director of Rugby David Humphreys and team manager David Millar.
After the verdict a terse statement was issued from Ravenhill. It read: “Ulster Rugby is disappointed with the outcome, and John Afoa himself is very disappointed, particularly in view of his outstanding disciplinary record where he has never previously received a yellow or red card during his professional career.”