Frustrated Ulster coach Neil Doak will fight against any Iain Henderson sanction
Ulster are expected to pull out all the stops to try and prevent red-carded Iain Henderson from being banned for the remainder of the season.
The star flanker was sent off by top referee Nigel Owens in the 73rd minute of Saturday’s dramatic 23-23 draw with Munster in their PRO12 clash at the Kingspan Stadium for leading with his head when entering a ruck and making contact with Ronan O’Mahony.
The 23-year-old Ireland international will be called before a disciplinary hearing either tomorrow (Tues) or on Wednesday which will be held in either Scotland or Wales to hear his fate over the controversial incident.
Ulster are expected to argue that if Henderson is sanctioned that this should be at the low end of four weeks for being in contravention of Law 10.4 (a) by striking an opponent with his head and with a 50% mitigation applied regarding the player’s disciplinary record.
This would then reduce his ban to two weeks but only make Henderson available for the PRO12 final should Ulster make it that far, though a successful appeal could get him back sooner.
The other option is to hope that the sending off is seen as sufficient to stand on its own in that Ulster were badly disadvantaged by having to play out the last seven minutes of the game with 14 men.
As Henderson’s intentions were not obviously malicious there would then be no further sanction applied and he would, therefore, be available to play straight away and, in effect, would have been shown a yellow.
There is also a recent precedent in England where Wasps’ Nathan Hughes had a red card and ban for kneeing George North in the head rescinded on appeal with the the RFU reversing their original decision by stating that “no act of foul play took place in that the incident occurred accidentally”.
Whatever the outcome of Henderson’s situation, Ulster also have a number of injury concerns heading towards Saturday’s final regulation clash with Glasgow with Roger Wilson, Wiehahn Herbst, Callum Black and Peter Nelson all having left the field with various knocks while Ruan Pienaar was clearly not fully fit due to his ankle issue.
To now avoid hitting the road for their semi-final, fourth-placed Ulster — who are a point behind the leading trio - must finish in the top two by winning at Glasgow and hoping that either Munster or the Ospreys lose their respective games in what looks set up to be a dramatic finish to the regulation season.
Unsurprisingly, the rival coaches had differing views on the Henderson decision, with Munster’s Anthony Foley defending the referee and Neil Doak gritting his teeth and saying as much as he could without landing himself in trouble.
“The rules are clear,” Foley said. “Not many people are bound any more when they enter the ruck, but you’re meant to be bound and arriving hitting with your shoulder.
“Whether it’s intentional or not... I’m sure there’s a committee that will sit down and look at all the angles. I don’t think Henderson’s a dirty player so maybe it’s an unfortunate circumstance but when heads collide or bodies go under bodies under a high ball there’s definitely repercussions around that.”
Doak disagreed, saying: “From the replay it looked as if Iain came in pretty low to clean out the ruck. We’ll just have to wait and see what the procedure is.
“I don’t think there was any malice. It was a timing issue. The referee felt it was dangerous play but I don’t think it was. If he gets banned or cited we will definitely appeal.
“I don’t think Hendy showed any intent to go and clean anybody out around the head.”
Paddy Jackson — hailed for his last-gasp wonder conversion which sealed the draw — also spoke out in defence of Henderson and described the team’s reaction as one of “disbelief”.
“I think Nigel (Owens) said you can’t lead with the head but I don’t see any way of going into a ruck other than head first,” said Jackson.
However Ulster manage to do at Scotstoun — this game is the only one pitting two top four sides against each other —it promises to be quite a weekend with just one point separating Doak’s squad from the three sides above them and all to play for to decide who is hosting the semis.
“Our thought process is about going to Glasgow to get a result,” Doak said, dismissing any notion that Ulster have settled for a finish outside the top two.
“Obviously we have to rely on somebody else to do us a favour but we’ll be focusing on Glasgow (who lost at the Ospreys on Friday night).
“There are four quality sides (in the play-offs) and I think on the day anybody could beat anybody,” he said.
“We’ve got to regroup and make sure that we’re ready to go over to Glasgow and look to get the win.
“To come back and get the draw against Munster on Saturday showed some great character in the squad. It was probably a little bit ironic in that we played Munster earlier in the season and missed a kick to win the game, and we get one here to draw.
“We’ve got to go to Glasgow now and make sure we shore up on a few areas and try and get another good performance like we did here but hopefully get the result.”