Tyrone Howe: No ref justice for Ulster in Cardiff
Last year I got dragged along (kicking and screaming) to referee at a local Under 13 rugby tournament. I was initially hit with nerves associated with the insecurity of not really knowing when a ruck turns into a maul and a host of other potential dilemmas.
Once I got into it, however, it was actually quite enjoyable and I managed to navigate my way through the matches relatively free of controversy.
Basically, I went out to do my best but the experience certainly gave me an insight into life on the other side of the rugby fence.
Therefore, it always surprises me to hear people accuse a referee of being deliberately biased.
I do not believe that any referee goes out with that approach, but I can absolutely understand the additional pressures of refereeing a home side in front of home supporters.
The man in the spotlight last Friday was George Clancy. Yet, any such accusers must have very short memories, as it was the same referee who oversaw Ulster’s 42-20 demolition of Edinburgh in early January.
I don’t remember too many complaints then.
At the breakdown, Clancy adjudicated Ulster’s indiscretions with technical accuracy.
Yes, it felt strange that so many scrum penalties were awarded against John Afoa, but often that decision comes from the touch judge.
It is vital that the assistant referees are empowered sufficiently, and there will always be times where props are penalised in questionable circumstances. It can happen to the very best and you simply have to get on with it.
Where Ulster can feel aggrieved is that Cardiff were not refereed quite as rigorously or consistently.
This can so easily happen in away games, and often it feels that the home side gets a split second longer or indeed the 50/50 decision goes against you.
But that is the challenge of playing away from home. If anyone thinks that Ulster will get any favours down in Thomond Park in the Heineken Cup quarter final, they are sadly mistaken.
You have to work harder than normal, be more disciplined and scrap for everything in order to secure the points.
Quite simply, if you look to the referee as the main reason for the loss, then you look for excuses, and there is no room for excuses in professional rugby. Honesty is the only currency.
I pose the simple question whether the better side won? To this there is a clear answer — Cardiff were the superior side over the eighty minutes and deserved to win the game.
Will Ulster be relieved to come away with a losing bonus point? Yes, I expect so.
I was not left reeling from the refereeing, rather the poor execution demonstrated by some of the players.
There was an acute lack of care for the ball when in possession and a profligate lack of patience.
Too many turnovers coupled with some downright awful defence both from a system and individual perspective.
Of course, being penalised by the referee at crucial times in the game, like on the stroke of half time do not help.
But the far greater and more worrying factor is the parts of the pitch in which the penalties occurred.
These days the alarms should go off when you are defending in your own half.
This is even more important when you are playing against Cardiff outhalf, Dan Parks.
One should not be fooled into thinking that his international retirement has suddenly consigned the former Scotland international to the scrapheap.
He may continue to have issues with chargedowns on his own try line, but his out of hand kicking showed real quality and kept pinning Ulster back.
Crucially, Parks’ place kicking made Ulster pay. It is that bit more difficult playing away from home and Ulster have now lost all fixtures over in Wales.
One of the biggest challenges for the squad is how to operate efficiently and effectively without the leading presence of Muller, Ferris and Best in the pack.
It was a match when one hoped that several more players might put their hands up for inclusion in Ireland’s Six Nations 22. Instead it turned out to be a weekend, when Ulster’s two biggest rivals both won and Connacht managed a draw.
Further Irish selection will frustratingly remain elusive.