Ronan O'Gara: One in the eye for the agents provocateurs?

Ronan O'Gara: One in the eye for the agents provocateurs?
TAKE THAT: France’s Mohammed Haouas punches Scotland’s Jamie Ritchie in last weekend’s Six Nations clash at Murrayfield. Only the prop himself knows whether he was baited or whether it was a mad rush of blood. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images

Montpellier prop Mohamed Haouas copped a three-week ban this week for landing a haymaker flush on Scottish flanker Jamie Ritchie’s nose last Sunday at Murrayfield.

The red card sin was considered a mid-range six-week offence by the Six Nations disciplinary committee but his guilty plea and his relative inexperience at international level were considered in mitigation.

I’m not sure what triggered Momo’s violent reaction. He had a troubled upbringing, so it’s not like he didn’t have such a disproportionate reaction in his locker.

Of course, there are other possibilities. Provocation in rugby is part of the game. Always has been, long before the game went professional.

The stakes are higher now.

Maybe Scotland knew he has a hair-trigger temperament. Maybe they played on that. I don’t know. But such is the level of skulduggery, baiting, and sledging that goes on rugby, it’s a surprise there isn’t more flat-out, unvarnished reactions like Momo’s in the modern game.

The agents provocateurs are aware there are so many camera angles at a game now that any retribution of the physical variety is going to be picked up. So usually, revenge is served up later, and quietly in a ruck. Oops, sorry about that ref…

Haouas’ biggest vice was his inexperience. He’s a rookie. Montpellier took a punt on. But in the unforgiving crucible of test rugby, there’s no one to put an arm around his shoulder and show him the ropes.

Only the prop himself knows whether he was baited or whether it was a mad rush of blood. If it was the former, am I wrong to think it was the slightest bit refreshing? Isn’t it a salty reminder in a general sense (and not specific to Jamie Ritchie, I hasten to add) for every smartarse agent provocateur that, once in a while, he might get decked for his troubles? And he mightn’t be so smart to provoke the next time?

In terms of the general reaction to the punch — and the whole Joe Marler-Alun-Wyn Jones episode in the Wales game — I’m shocked that people are so shocked. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the low threshold for these things in the rarefied PC world we all now inhabit. Remember one thing please:

It’s a game of rugby, so don’t be telling me ‘if he did that on the street’. It’s not on the street. It’s in a very artificial and demanding space where 30 professional players are engaged in a hugely physical battle and everyone is playing on the edge. Understand that, please.

I get society’s lower thresholds. I get that players are role models. You cross the white line onto a rugby pitch with great values, but you can lose them out there. People are saying ‘but they’re so well paid, but they are role models. THEY ARE PEOPLE.

And that’s even more significant in certain positions on the pitch. The highest moments of intensity are when heads and bodies collide, front row v front row. The nine and ten are meant to be the drivers of the team, the strategists if you will, but the front five are the ones who put you on the front foot. That’s a massive psychological war in itself so cut Momo some slack.

Yes, it was a red card all day and, of course, Fabien Galthie will be raging with the Montpellier lad. He may have punctured France’s hopes of a Grand Slam in one made moment. But he’s also a rookie international who once turned up to training with a knife.

He hasn’t been around the gaff long enough to understand that revenge is something you get after the 75th minute.

A few years back, Denis Leamy was the master of that sort of stuff. He was a quiet enforcer, but even Leamy had a snap point. Everyone does. The difference was that his revenge wouldn’t have been in the 36th minute of a test match or a European Cup knockout game. He might have exacted revenge when the game was over on the scoreboard. The only one I saw icier than that was David Wallace who sailed serenely through every storm. He didn’t get sucked into that stuff and eventually the opposition accepted as much and stopped bothering him.

Imagine that: He was officially A Made Man. Beyond provocation.

I never acquired such status. For years I was easy bait. Then there was a stage where I settled the head and the heart-rate and understood the game the opposition was trying to play. And you end up telling yourself ‘don’t bite’ a helluva lot.

Leinster’s Shane Jennings was a great man to draw you out. He’d taunt you, drive you to the brink.

The late shot. The step on the toe. ‘Oh sorry about that Rog’. He’d give you a dead leg for free with that sneaky knee. But the ‘don’t bite’ mantra served me well. It still does. In this column a few weeks ago I wrote about how, as a coach now, a snap, critical comment to a player can set you back months in terms of progress and relationships.

La Rochelle went to my old club Racing 92 at the end of last month and shipped an embarrassing 49-0 Top 14 defeat. We haven’t had a game since to eradicate it from the memory bank and the bad taste is lingering. I want to bite. But we just hunker down and pledge to do better.

These are strange times. There’s a LNR meeting planned for Monday regarding the fixture schedule in light of the Covid-19 outbreak. There’s a proposal that the next three rounds are played behind closed doors.

Several club presidents, representing outfits and communities which exist on the basis of matchday revenue, do not like the sound of that at all.

There are some monied clubs in the Top 14 supported by millionaire backers. And then there’s the likes of Clermont, La Rochelle, Agen, Brive who need community support for all sorts reasons. Two of our next three games are at home to Lyon and Bordeaux, the two top in the league.

That’s when you really need the friendly noise.

Delaying the Top 14 and extending the season into July and August is complicated by the fact that players have already agreed contracts with other clubs and the Top 14 final date of Friday, June 26, at the Stade de France is already locked in as a distinct (and lucrative) commercial agreement.

Of course, everything is in a state of flux as things stand. Ireland are three-fifths of the way through a Six Nations tournament. The chances of them playing Italy and France appear negligible at this stage.

Fixtures may be proposed for the autumn, but how realistic they are is the question. Do Ireland tour Australia in June?

It may be another month or six weeks before we have a clearer indication of what’s happening with the Top 14, with rugby and with sport.

For now, stay well.

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