Ulster's sigh of relief as red-carded Payne gets two-week ban
ULSTER emerged with the best possible outcome following yesterday's disciplinary hearing against Jared Payne.
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Although the full-back's two-week ban means he will now miss Ulster's must-win RaboDirect PRO12 games against Connacht and Glasgow Warriors at Ravenhill and Scotstoun respectively, that translates as the minimum sentence independent Judicial Officer Simon Thomas (Wales) could have imposed.
In reality, he was never going to undermine the controversial decision taken by French referee Jerome Garces to dismiss Payne a mere four minutes into Saturday night's Heineken Cup quarter-final clash with Saracens at Ravenhill.
Vitally, while Thomas backed the match official by upholding his decision to order the 28-year-old New Zealander from the pitch, he judged the offence to have been of low-end severity.
In those circumstances, normally the punishment would be a three-week ban. However, there is room for discretion and the Judicial Officer exercised his right in that respect by allowing for Payne's excellent disciplinary record and his exemplary behaviour during the hearing.
And having taken those factors into consideration, Thomas ruled in Ulster's favour by reducing the normal three-week period of suspension by seven days, the maximum reduction he could have made.
As a result, Payne will be free to play in Ulster's PRO12 inter-pro meeting with Leinster at Ravenhill on May 2, the night on which the new stadium is to have its official opening.
A two-week suspension was the minimum Payne could have hoped for when he appeared before the independent disciplinary hearing in Dublin at lunch-time yesterday.
Referee Garces showed a red card following a fourth minute collision between Payne and his opposite number, Saracens' Alex Goode.
England international Goode – who was off the ground having jumped to field a towering up and under from Ulster fly-half Paddy Jackson – fell heavily and ended up being stretchered off.
Despite Ulster captain Johann Muller's insistence that the collision has been purely accidental and that his team-mate's eyes were solely on the ball from start to finish of the incident, Payne was dismissed.
The referee's interpretation was that the Kiwi – who will be Irish-qualified next season – was guilty of a challenge which contravened Law 10.4(i). The Judicial Officer upheld the match official's red card decision by adjudging Payne guilty of a reckless act.
However, under the IRB Sanctions for foul play, Law 10.4(i) carries different sanctions dependent on entry points. These range from low end (three weeks), mid-range (six weeks) to top end (12 to 52 weeks).
Remarking that the case had been a particularly challenging one, Mr Thomas expressed his thanks to the Ulster Rugby representatives for the quality of their defence.
In addition to listening to evidence from Payne (pictured) himself, the Judicial Officer heard submissions from Ulster's director of rugby David Humphreys, team manager David Millar and European Rugby Cup disciplinary officer Roger O'Connor, who presented ERC's case against the player.
In a red card hearing, the burden is on the player to prove, on the balance of probabilities, that the referee's decision to dismiss him was wrong.
Where the referee's decision is upheld, as was the case here, it falls on the independent Judicial Officer to consider the appropriate sanction.
Under the IRB's sanctioning regime – which ERC is obliged to follow – the Judicial Officer must first assesses the seriousness of the accused player's actions and then determine which of the three stipulated entry points is the most appropriate.
The Judicial Officer's decision as to the entry point is based on his assessment of a number of particular characteristics of the player's actions, including whether or not these were intentional, caused any injuries or had any effect on the match.
Having decided on the entry point, it then falls to the Judicial Officer to consider whether the suspension should (a) be increased from the entry point to take account of certain specified aggravating factors, such as a poor disciplinary record or the need for deterrence, or (b) reduced from the entry point based on certain specified mitigating actions, such as a guilty plea, a good disciplinary record, the player's conduct and expressions of remorse.
Yesterday at Ravenhill, as he waited to hear how Payne's Dublin hearing had gone, Ulster coach Mark Anscombe said: "I watched Super Rugby on the morning of the match before coming here. I saw the Reds play the (Western) Force and there was a similar incident. You couldn't have gotten too more similar incidents.
"One gets a penalty and the other gets a red card. It's the same rule book; southern hemisphere, northern hemisphere, it's the same rule book. So how can the same rule book end with two such vastly different outcomes?"
It's a very fair question, albeit rhetorical. The bottom line is that yesterday's outcome was as good as was ever going to be the case for Payne and Ulster.