Lenient line on dangerous play doing the game no favours
THE tone for this interpro was set with the industrial load of points dumped on Ulster in Thomond Park at the end of September. Ulster’s predicament has been such that they couldn’t afford to be counting the days until this rematch — they’ve had a lot on their plate in Europe — but the combination of some momentum now from that competition, and the nature of the Munster selection on Friday night, meant the home team really had to deliver.
In September Ulster sent down something close to the best they could muster, not as strong as the following week at home to Connacht, but not a mile off it either for a squad sorely lacking in depth.
The pattern in these games is fairly well set now: fill your boots in the home legs; rotate at will for the road trips. Clearly Leinster are best tooled up to be very competitive in either, but Munster were able to make 13 changes from the side coursed around Stade Pierre Fabre last weekend and still fancy their chances. Munster’s depth chart is at its best since they started keeping one. Ulster have a way to go on that journey.
So the downside for the home team was the pressure to deliver against an understrength side. Add in the weather — it seems virtually inevitable that every Friday night in Belfast it pisses down long enough to soak every blade of grass in the Kingspan — and given the sheer grunt of the Munster pack, that was something they could handle.
It was working well enough until they were sickened in the final quarter with a lovely try for young wing Robert Baloucoune — who surely should have seen red for his dangerous tackle on the airborne Darren Sweetnam from the drop-off to start the game.
The only reason we can think of for referee Sean Gallagher not to have sent him off was that Sweetnam didn’t land on his head, and wasn’t badly hurt. This was pure good fortune, and if the law needs to be rewritten so that crazy tackles don’t rely on very bad outcomes to warrant red then get on with it.
It was also sporting of Sweetnam not to tear the backside out of it. Had he stayed on the ground long enough to put pressure on Gallagher — who was happy, on review, to declare it a yellow card offence — the story may have ended differently. Last week, Gallagher had a red card overturned. This incident happened literally on the first play of the game, so perhaps that too was a factor.
Predicting outcomes on Planet Discipline is an unforgiving business but it would be stunning if Baloucoune is not cited. In the space of a second, he managed to do everything wrong. He was blessed to survive. Referees’ manager Greg Garner battles every week to clear his inbox of emails from disgruntled coaches with an axe to grind. Johann van Graan would be justified in lobbing in his own complaint.
In the space of a week Munster have got the short end of the stick from officialdom. It was clear in Castres last week that Rory Kockott was in loose cannon mode, and Wayne Barnes should have spoken to him. How the Castres scrum-half could then get off with three weeks for a gouge on Chris Cloete beggared belief. The EPCR press release noted how his good behaviour at the tribunal served in mitigation. Unreal stuff.
So Munster had to be content with a losing bonus point, and credit to Bill Johnston for holding his nerve to kick the penalty that secured it. He had done well to nail the previous effort having had to replace the ball on the tee.
Still, in the space of seven days Munster have gone away from home and lost games they would, with better refereeing, have won. It was their fifth defeat on the road this season. They will be glad to have Leinster in Limerick on Saturday.