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The Ireland stars who went from men in green to ending up seeing red on the rugby pitch



Marching orders: Peter O’Mahony is sent off by match referee Wayne Barnes during Ireland’s Six Nations defeat to Wales

Marching orders: Peter O’Mahony is sent off by match referee Wayne Barnes during Ireland’s Six Nations defeat to Wales

�INPHO/Tommy Dickson

Marching orders: Peter O’Mahony is sent off by match referee Wayne Barnes during Ireland’s Six Nations defeat to Wales

For 44 years, Willie Duggan's name stood alone in the Irish section of the Six Nations record books as the only player to have been sent off in a Championship game until last Sunday when Peter O'Mahony entered the hall of shame.

The late, great Kilkenny No.8 joined Welshman Geoff Wheel in making his­tory in 1977 when they were sent off by Scottish referee Norman Sanson just before half-time at the Cardiff Arms Park.

They were the third and fourth play­ers to be dismissed in rugby history, the first in the Championship's long history and the first pair to be sent off at the same time.

Thirty-three years passed before Jamie Heaslip became the second Irish international to be sent off for his lib­eral use of the knee on Richie McCaw, and in the last five years we've had more Irish red cards than we did in the preceding 141.

With the use of video technology and stricter enforcement of the rules around head injuries, dismissals are more common, and CJ Stander, Bundee Aki and O'Mahony have all seen red in recent times.

'What a costly punch' read the headline in The Irish Press after Duggan was sent to the line in the Welsh capital as Ireland collapsed in the absence of their Lion and lost 28-9.

For some, Duggan was unlucky, whereas others felt that he'd let the country down.

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The game had been bad-tempered and tight, and the score was 6-6 when Duggan looked up from a maul and saw Wheel striking Stuart McKinney.

As his team-mate fell to the floor, the No.8 took matters into his own hands. Within sec­onds, he was being sent to the line.

"There wasn't much to it," said Wheel in 2006.

"It was fair enough really. You throw a punch in front of the referee, what else can you expect? He felt it was necessary and he took a stand."

The match commentators didn't realise that Wheel had company as he headed for the line, and for the Welsh second-row it was a surprise to see Dug­gan jogging off with him.

"I didn't know what that was about," he said.

"I wasn't involved with Willie Duggan at all. I didn't even see what he was supposed to have done. We even had a bit of a laugh about it on the side­line.

"We definitely got the best of it. He was having a really good game at the back of the lineout. Willie was a great character and an exceptionally good player. I don't know what he got sent off for but they ended up losing their best player and we won."

Duggan, who sadly died in 2017, got a two-week ban. Wheel was gone for four weeks.

There was even a call for Duggan, who won his 11th cap that day in Cardiff, to be banned from representing Ireland again, but he was back in the team a few weeks later and toured New Zealand with the Lions that summer.


Ireland great Willie Duggan

Ireland great Willie Duggan


Ireland great Willie Duggan


And it was in the Land of the Long White Cloud where Duggan's fellow No.8 Heaslip made his own piece of history in 2010.

Ireland were on a two-week tour of New Zealand where they faced the All Blacks and the Maori before taking on Australia en route home.

The 2009 Grand Slam winners were out to make a statement against the team that would host the World Cup a year later but, having fallen to a 10-0 deficit, the Naas native's frustrations got the better of him when Gordon D'Arcy surged close to the line and McCaw came in from the side to kill the ball.

Heaslip delivered two swift knees to the New Zealand captain and within seconds Wayne Barnes was reaching for his pocket, saying "this man has used his knee to the head twice".

For the future captain, the experience of watching as Ireland suffered what was then a record 66-28 defeat was excruciating.

"As I walked off the pitch, what I'd done to the team hit me like a kick to the guts," he wrote in his book All In.

"Everyone on my team was going to be firefighting while knowing the house was still going to burn down.

"They got a hiding and I was sitting there like a spare tool."

If that was bad, what followed was worse. Ireland were staying in New Zea­land for the week and, given McCaw's status, the subsequent hearing attracted plenty of attention.

"I know the media are intense in New Zealand when it comes to rugby, but bloody hell!" he said.

"When I got to the hotel for the hear­ing there were loads of TV cameras and photographers - it was like a murder trial or something.

"It's not something I'm proud of and being the only Ireland player to be sent off in professional rugby is not a great record. It's a life lesson."

For five years, that record was Hea­slip's until another No.8 joined him and Duggan in the bold corner.

Stander was facing his native South Africa for the first time, just up the Gar­den Route from his home town, when he followed through on an attempted charge-down on his old Under-20s team-mate Pat Lambie and caught the out-half's head with his hip, knocking him out.

In another era, it would have passed unnoticed, but once referee Mathieu Raynal went to the video official, Stander was in trouble and he was sent off.

"Very, very harsh," was coach Joe Schmidt's assessment.

"CJ had both hands extended. Once you are in the air, you cannot change your trajectory. Sometimes, I think when there is an injury like that, the consequence is that a card comes out.

"I know CJ and Pat are friends. CJ was upset that Pat was hurt, as much as he was upset that he had to leave the field."

Remarkably, Ireland won that game - their first win over the Boks on South African soil - but lost the series, with Stander serving his one-match ban for the second Test.

Despite the result, Stander describes it as the low point of his career.

Three years later, another emotional reunion was ruined by a head contact when Aki got his body angles all wrong and ended his own World Cup as he hit UJ Seuteni high and hard with his shoulder.

With Australian referee Nic Berry adhering to the zero-tolerance policy on high shots, the son of Samoan parents saw the line and the three-week ban he received meant he missed the rest of Ireland's tournament.

"As a rugby player, you've just to take whatever decision they've made on it, and I didn't help with the shoulder on the head and I take some of the blame," Aki said last year.

"If you look at it, how fast it hap­pened… it's an instinct, it's a reaction and it's the way we grow up as rugby players - you just follow your instinct and you think about it, you'd go back and try and adjust and be really clinical about the way I tackled.

"Yes, I should have went lower. Yes, I should have slowed my feet down. Yes, I should have done this and that. But it just happened so quickly and it just ended the way it did."

The same logic could be applied to O'Mahony last Sunday as he careered into a ruck, making contact with Tomas Francis' head and, once Barnes reviewed it, he had no choice but to give him his marching orders.

Boss Andy Farrell said in the aftermath: "Guys don't do this on purpose, get sent off and hamper the performance of the team. They care about the team and their team-mates deeply, so Pete is hurting at this moment in time.

"He's done a lot of good things for us in the past and I'm sure he'll do the same for us in the future."

Unlike 1977, the sight of players being sent off is more common these days and it's likely this gang of five won't stay at that number for long.

With the rules around head contact leading to more red cards, the rogues' gallery might become a little bit more crowded in the years to come.

Belfast Telegraph