I’ve been a bold boy. Or so I’ve been told. I’ve had to explain myself, which is fine. You’re not always losing when you’re explaining, writes Ronan O'Gara.
That’s all I did with the South African referee the night of Racing’s recent derby at Stade Francais.
It landed me a date Wednesday in front of 12 suited and booted gentlemen at the headquarters of the LNR in Paris. The strange, stilted sights and sounds of a disciplinary hearing again.
Again. Yes this is the third one since I joined Racing Metro. How bad does that sound? Not that bad really. It’s only the second one this season, and the first since the Toulon game last August when Johnny Sexton was smashed by a forearm. We’d seen that one coming. Told the ref so. He didn’t like it.
Against Stade, the Top 14, in its enduring wisdom, had taken the opportunity to bring in a glamorous South African referee, Jaco Van Heerden, ahead of his European Champions Cup duties the following week. Interesting decision for one of the biggest domestic games in the French calendar.
His day in the sun was the catalyst for a chain of events that landed me in my shiny Racing Metro suit and tie, explaining myself to the LNR this week. I was the hors d’oeuvres. Our coach Laurent Labit was up for an hour after me. He was the plat principal.
He had described our 23-19 defeat as a stick-up. A robbery. A joke. A few other things. “Everyone saw the guy in the middle, nicely dressed, with shoes that matched his shirt, refereeing all afternoon with a smile. He spent the week in Paris, he must have visited a lot of things, had a nice walk around, and he did so this afternoon too.”
It’s not for me to disagree with my boss. Such was Mr Van Heerden’s, shall we say, colourful decision-making on the day, I found myself contesting several decisions with him. I was warned by the assistant referee to desist from doing so but would Ilisten?
I’m within my rights to say his performance was brutal. That’s the only word for him. The assistant was telling me, ‘you can’t say that’.
Well I am saying it.
After 35 minutes, the penalty count was 8-1 against us. His interpretation of the breakdown, coupled with the fact that in my opinion — and I need to be careful here because they’re reading this weekly in Paris — he allowed himself to be influenced by the noise of the crowd.
When the rap sheet was read out, they all got their questions in. Forty minutes I reckon. I didn’t have much to say. Yes I completely concur with the charge. I did contest those incorrect decisions. If that’s a fault, I hold my hands up. It’s different in France. If you are before the league authorities here, they want to hear your side of the story, because they are only working on a referee’s report. With the European bodies or the Six Nations, if you’re explaining, it’s merely for the purpose of sentence mitigation.
I found out yesterday what the penalty was. And some penalty. Laurent Labit received a 15 week exclusion ban and a €50,000 fine and your’s truly received two weeks and a €7,000 fine. You can take it there won’t be much chat on the sideline from now.
Not a bad thing.
Am I having a chat with myself? Yeah. When I reflect now, I possibly needed some space and time between playing and coaching. Because I went straight into working with the kickers at Racing, I got no distance from the pitch. I only went the few feet from inside the white line to just outside it. I’m not sure I need to be there at the moment.
It doesn’t serve any purpose either. Losing the rag. Stade v Racing is Munster-Leinster. Frustration does set it, but at a general level, my work should largely stress-free now. By game time, my work is done. All you are hoping is the things you’ve worked on during the week comes to fruition. You’re an observer.
Last Saturday night, Racing lost at home to unfancied, unheralded Oyonnax. I could see it happening in front of me, like watching your car tip over a cliff and being helpless to do anything about it. I thought those type of Racing performances were in the past.
Our two tries from Johan Goosen and Teddy Thomas were unbelievable, but we weren’t accurate, our discipline was poor and we were soft. Their kicker, Benjamin Urdapilleta, a lefty, couldn’t miss. Anything he teed up, was going over. It was set up for a serious smash and grab job and they deserved it. 21-17. Our first home loss of the season. When the attitude isn’t right, it’s nasty what can happen.
Tomorrow night we visit Bayonne at 7pm Irish time. It means I miss the South Africa test at the Aviva. And the England-All Blacks game.
Given what happened the last time they met at Twickenham, that should be a belter. England line speed against the creativity of New Zealand. At the Aviva, the physicality of the Boks versus the rucking technique of Joe Schmidt’s Ireland. In Cardiff, Wales bid to end their six-year drought against the Wallabies. An intriguing weekend.
Schmidt has opted to go with a midfield of Henshaw and Payne, and a backline involving Zebo, Kearney and Bowe, a very steep learning curve against South Africa especially. There’s nothing the head coach can do about that, but there’s very few bonds formed between that group yet. The more you go battle, the more sh*t you’ve been through, the stronger you grow as a group.
What’ll be crucial will be kick accuracy from Ireland’s half-backs. If they can find grass, if the contestables can be won, Ireland have a good chance. I’m looking forward to seeing what first phase power-plays Ireland have up their sleeve.
Johnny Sexton is eager. The scan on the Thursday before the Oyonnax game showed no injury to the hamstring. That week he’d been in Irish camp and from Racing’s point of view, it was possibly a poor decision to play him against Oyonnax, considering he was in Dublin from Monday to Wednesday. That’s a heavy workload. If that happens again we are better off not playing him for Racing. In fairness to him, he’s in international mode at that stage.
England and Wales have brutal Autumn schedules. Both are playing the big three southern hemisphere nations. Ireland are waiting nicely in the long grass, but don’t doubt that they’ll be bitterly disappointed to lose at home to the Boks. There would be an uneasiness in Camp Ireland if they don’t win tomorrow. While it’s an opportunity in a World Cup cycle for Jack McGrath and an overdue one for Sean Cronin at hooker, Rory Best will be a massive loss. Of all the games to need Healy, Best and Ross, this was the one. Best’s loss will be massive because of his scummaging ability and his general hardness.
Schmidt’s plan is thus: Get out of the blocks, get the win over South Africa, talk up the opportunities for players against Georgia, and then unleash everything against the Wallabies. That momentum carries you into a massive Six Nations teeing up for a spectacular World Cup this time next year. Easy isn’t it?
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