Who were the shining examples this weekend, and who had a match to forget? We look at rugby’s latest heroes and villains.
The moment Jared Payne sent an airborne Alex Goode crashing to the turf during the fourth minute of Saturday’s Heineken Cup quarter-final clash between Ulster and Saracens, referee Jerome Garces knew he was about to hit the headlines. Whether he sent Payne off or not, he would be condemned by half the crowd – and half of the rugby population at large.
A lot of nonsense is talked about referees spoiling the game when they send off someone early on, because the contest often becomes one sided. That is not the official’s problem. A referee surely has an absolute duty of care to the players and must do all he or she can to keep them safe on the pitch, so to allow a reckless and dangerous challenge like Payne’s to be punished with a penalty or a yellow card would have been wrong.
Garces had the bottle to send Payne off – poignantly at exactly the moment that the stricken Saracens full-back was being stretchered from the field of play. The French referee took his time about the decision and consulted with his colleages to ensure he got it right. But even so, as he took the card from his pocket he must have known he would be lambasted by everyone connected with Ulster, as well as some neutrals.
Former players who have commented about the incident in the media – social, or otherwise – seem split on whether Garces was right or wrong, but I think he was correct and brave.
When Ulster ended up a man down after just four minutes of their Heineken Cup quarter-final, they did not give up the game as a lost cause. They stayed in the fight until the very end and were battering away at the Saracens’ defence for the last five minutes, seeking the final scoring chance they needed to win. They ended up losing 17-15 but they came within a whisker of victory.
It wasn’t just about 14 men for Ulster – they had to use their bench earlier than they would have liked as hooker Rory Best went off injured in the 12th minute and another of their leaders, Ruan Pienaar, had to be replaced in the 49th minute.
The home fans at Ravenhill also played a massive role. A total of 16,853 people were packed into the newly expanded ground and those in Ulster colours roared from the first minute to the last, trying their best to lift their weary heroes to victory. They so nearly did it too.
Back rows to the fore
There were a lot of good individual performances during a pulsating weekend of Heineken Cup rugby, but two back-rowers stand out thanks to their match-winning performances.
He wasn’t in the starting line-up, but CJ Stander was instrumental to Munster’s 47-23 caning of Toulouse, having come on as a 19th minute replacement for Peter O’Mahony. Stander topped his team’s statistics in four areas, with his 11 carries, ten tackles, three turnovers and three defenders beaten. Munster put in a brilliant performance, with Paul O’Connell calling it “one of those days where everything came off”, so to stand out when so many players were at the top of their game takes some doing.
Stander was deservedly named Man of the Match, as was another brilliant back-rower, Steffon Armitage. The exiled Englishman made more metres than any of his Toulon team-mates, 63, and won more turnovers (three) and was a key factor in their 29-14 win over Leinster.
Saracens were not at their best in beating Ulster on Saturday, but one player who shone throughout the fierce contest was hooker Schalk Britz. For starters, the English side had a 100% lineout success rate, down in no small part to the man throwing the ball in.
But Britz is more than a set-piece maestro. Twice he carved a line through the Ulster defence, using clever footwork as well as pace and power, and both times his incursion ended in a try for a team-mate. Britz made more metres with the ball in hand than any other player from either team – 91 in total – and he carried eight times, an effort bettered or equalled only by three other players.
Merci Monsieur Barnes
Well done Wayne Barnes for having the intelligence and courtesy to use a few French phrases during his refereeing of Toulon v Leinster. He spoke English most of the time, but shouted a few instructions in French and had a stab at explaining a penalty decision in that language too.
I realise a lot of the Toulon players have English as their first language, but not all do and I understand their squad operates in French on a day-to-day basis.
I do not expect all top level referees to be bi-lingual, but it does not take a lot of effort to learn a few key phrases well enough to use them in the heat of a game. It shows respect to non-English speaking teams and it should happen a lot more often.
You have to feel a bit sorry for Jared Payne, after he was sent off during the first five minutes of Ulster’s Heineken Cup quarter-final clash with Saracens and his team went on to lose the game 17-15. However, you would not feel so compassionate if Alex Goode, the victim of his reckless play, had been seriously injured. Thankfully he was not.
Payne did not intend to take Alex Goode out in the air in a dangerous manner, as the two of them chased the same high ball, but the fact remains that he did clatter into the jumping Saracen at full pelt and he did bring him crashing to the ground.
Payne’s supporters have said he had his eyes on the ball and didn’t see Goode. I actually believe he glanced up once during his run and looked again for the last stride of his sprint, having realised he was not going to get to the ball in time.
If he had been a couple of metres closer and had been able to jump up with Goode and compete for the ball, this would be a very different case and the card he was shown would probably have been yellow. But having failed to make enough ground, Payne should have checked his stride and tried to avoid contact until Goode hit the ground, instead of charging recklessly on, regardless of who was infront of him.
Time for tee
Last week we had a Leicester Tigers physio stopping Northampton Saints from taking a potentially crucial quick lineout – this week it was a Toulon official who carelessly intervened in the game.
The French club were leading Leinster 23-9 with 66 minutes of their Heineken Cup quarter-final gone when referee Wayne Barnes awarded them a penalty. Acting skipper Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe wanted to kick for touch, but Barnes insisted Toulon go for the posts because one of their staff had brought the kicking tee onto the pitch – something which is now taken as a signal of the team’s intention to go for the three points.
So, Delon Armitage was called up to take the kick from just inside his own half, wide out on the right. To the relief of the errant Toulon employee, Armitage landed the extremely difficult kick. However, that didn’t stop Fernandez Lobbe quite rightly lambasting the man for being so careless as to bring the tee on without being asked. Imagine if it had been at a more critical point in such an important game?
Forwards going backwards
Toulouse have won the Heineken Cup four times and been to the final on two other occasions, but they were sent crashing out of this year’s competition by a rampaging Munster side who sent them packing from Thomond Park on the wrong end of a 47-23 scoreline.
The Irish side could not have dreamed pre-match of beating the French giants by such a margin, but the Toulouse pack simply failed to cope with the fire and passion of their mainly smaller Munster opponents.
Toulouse conceded 16 turnovers, lost four lineouts and one scrum. The white-hot desire exhibited by the Munster players meant the massive French forwards could not secure enough ball to live with their hosts. They came up against Munster at their very best, but the Toulouse pack will know they had a bad day at the office.