Heineken Cup: Ulster Rugby's Jared Payne was more sinned against
So much for the dreams and aspirations towards an all Ireland weekend of Heineken Cup rugby. The possibility of back to back semi-finals taking place in Dublin in three weeks time was blown into oblivion first at Ravenhill and then at the Stade Felix Mayol in beautiful Toulon 24 hours on.
Leinster finished a distant second despite a 'mere' 15 points separating the sides at the death. They gave it their all, certainly for the opening 40, but on the day it wasn't near enough and by their own exalted standards in the premier European competition they fell a long way short of their optimum best.
Northampton planted the seeds of doubt in Dublin in December and Toulon ruthlessly exploited that insecurity to the full. It made for a weekend of Heineken Cup rugby for Leinster folk best forgotten.
For Ulster, defeat to Saracens for the second year running was a little harder to stomach. Quite apart from the clown that is Chris Ashton doing his ego mad, self indulgent thing, this match swung on one early and in my view sad decision resulting in Jared Payne seeing red.
While we all accept the principle governing duty of care, quite how anyone could interpret what transpired in Ravenhill as a red card, malicious offence is beyond reason.
According to the IRB Laws and Principles of the game it is 'perfectly acceptable to exert extreme physical pressure on an opponent in an attempt to gain possession but not wilfully or maliciously inflict injury'.
'These are the boundaries within which players and referees must operate and it is the capacity to make this fine distinction, combined with control and discipline, both individual and collective, upon which the code of conduct depends.'
'Rugby owes much of its appeal to the fact that it is played both to the letter and within the Spirit of the Laws. The responsibility for ensuring that this happens lies not with one individual but with coaches, captains, players and referees.'
Did Payne wilfully or maliciously inflict injury?
Even on immediate big screen viewing the answer to that was and is an emphatic no. The full back's eyes were focussed fully on the flight of the ball when chasing Paddy Jackson's lofted kick.
Of course the receiving player, Alex Goode, demands protection but when both players were equally and honestly committed there has to be room for the spirit as well as the letter to apply.
The heat of the moment is NOT the time for judge and jury to administer (their perceived) justice.
The longer it took for Jerome Garces and his fellow officials (chiefly the TMO) to determine guilt you felt red the more than likely outcome.
In effect the referee had backed himself into a corner and while no-one but no-one could possibly deny the wrong that was done to the Sarries full back, a sending off offence it was not. At worst it was reckless and even at that I'm not so sure.
That Payne or any other for that matter has a scrupulously clean disciplinary record (as in 'he is not that type of player') is irrelevant. But what is relevant is the clear and obvious evidence before our eyes.
The Ulster full back did what every other kick chasing player around the world does but with absolute integrity and total honesty. That he interfered with his opposite number in the act of fielding the ball is beyond dispute but I defy anyone suggest the nature of the contact and its timing was carried out with intent.
The IRB and by extension its match officials world wide should be supported in attempting to ensure that players leave the field in pretty much the same physical nick in which they run on.
The issue is not with the principle but with the process. Here surely we could dip into Rugby League and borrow what League administrators term 'On Report'.
The penalty is, of course, awarded, a yellow card can be delivered (on the basis of doubt) and the case dealt with in much greater detail at the appropriate time way beyond the heat of the moment.
Because malicious intent could not be determined (for the reason there was none) surely duty of care should extend both ways.
I suspect there are many like me who feel (and I'm not talking Ulster supporters) a sense of injustice at the judge and jury action taken with undue haste.
If there is a positive from this watershed action I guess it will make chasers even more aware of the player on the receiving end of a Garryowen and just as the defender gathering a rolling ball on the ground must be allowed back on to his feet before being tackled by the chasers so too will the player in the air be given greater leeway in diffusing the bomb.
The fact that Ulster almost carried out a minor miracle in the remaining 75 minutes is of little consolation. The logical and I would suggest fairest decision should have been 10 minutes in the bin.
Rugby officialdom (the IRB) unlike Football (FIFA) is to be admired for embracing technology. There is the danger however of it spinning out of control.
A more definite line needs to be drawn as to the extent of its use mid match and where doubt exists (a la Ravenhill) a 'Report' type system employed with immediate affect.