IT was almost three-quarters the way through Saturday’s tense Heineken Cup game between Munster and Castres in Thomond Park, and Marcus Horan was incensed. “There’s nothing wrong with his eye,” he was shouting at the ref, “We don’t do that stuff.”
“You calm down,” admonished the ref, calling over the Castres number six. Horan, however, wasn’t for calming. “There’s nothing wrong with your eye,” he yelled at Romaine Froment, the bleached-blonde Castres flanker, “It was probably one of your own anyway.”
It was seconds after yet another bad-tempered incident in a bad-tempered match. Horan and Froment had been locked in combat on the ground; the Castres player had thrown a couple of very obvious punches and now, with a possible yellow card beckoning, he was holding his hand to his face, putting on a show of having been eye-gouged, leading to Horan’s tirade.
The Munster prop had every reason for outrage. The fact is, Munster do not do that kind of stuff. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Castres, nor for too many other French teams.
The four Irish provinces played four French sides this past weekend; only one, Leinster, finished their game without complaint. Connacht were bitten and gouged in Montpelier, while Ulster’s Gary Longwell was blatantly head-butted in their surprise win over Stade Francais. What’s going on?
Even with all the cameras now in place for the top-class games, rugby is still a sport with a lot of opportunity for the low-blow merchant to ply his wares. The Irish provinces are not naive, and there are individuals there with a few tricks up their considerable sleeves. They are more than capable of playing the game within the game, would not be averse even to the ‘Hand of Back’-type incident that denied them a possible Heineken Cup win (“I’d do it myself,” Ronan O’Gara grinned recently, referring to Leicester’s Neil Back’s quick-thinking but illegal flick of the ball out of Peter Stringer’s hand.) But they do not set out to maim, to injure, to deliberately insult their opposition. On the evidence of this past weekend, the same can’t be said for a lot of French clubs.
While O’Gara was setting up his goal-kicks in the away leg against Castres last Friday week, their English open-side, Paul Volley, stood in front of the Munster out-half and insulted him in the most vile terms. There was also an attempt at physical intimidation by the same player, but that’s okay, any out-half worth his salt expects that, copes with it.
For the first penalty on Saturday afternoon, Volley was at it again, and for the first time in my experience at Thomond Park, the silence for the kicker, long respected, was threatened. “Shut up, Volley!” came the cries from the crowd, even as the Castres flanker continued his abuse after being moved back by a ref who was totally out of his depth.
That wasn’t the only tradition that was threatened in Thomond Park. There is a reputation there of respect for the opposition in all facets of play (as long as that play is fair; “Don’t ever start a fight in Limerick” is a long-standing rule for any visiting rugby club, at any Limerick rugby ground), an acknowledgement of good rugby, and good rugby players. On Saturday, the atmosphere was different; the good humour was there, as usual, but there was an undercurrent also, a nasty leftover from Mr Volley and the previous weekend.
“As far as I know, everything went well in Castres, there was no problem,” claimed Christian Gajan, the Castres coach, afterwards, “but the climate was created, in some newspapers there was a lack of respect for Paul Volley. This is not good, the crowd is conditioned by that. It’s lack of respect for players.”
This is almost as blatantly sham as his flanker’s attempt to con the officials into thinking he’d been gouged. It was his player, not the media, who had upset the Thomond Park crowd; his player was the one he should have been admonishing.
“Our supporters would have read a lot of what was said in the press, would have come to the game a bit angry at what went on over there,” said Anthony Foley. “Talking especially to the supporters who were over in France last week, they were really looking forward to this game, as much as the players were. The supporters brought that bite to the game, you saw even before the game started, they were really up for it.”
Bite? “Stuff the turkey’s bowl with holly” went one seasonal and topical chant at the terrace end, except it wasn’t ‘bowl’, and it wasn’t ‘holly’. “Volley, Volley, Volley” went another, dripping with irony, as the game wound to its emphatic conclusion.
Tough team, Munster, tough crowd, neither of them to be trifled with, but they are as fair as any team and set of supporters could ever be. Would that the same could be said for everyone else.
The Ospreys visit Musgrave Park this Saturday, another side with a less than honourable recent record against Munster. Hopefully, even in spite of those disgraceful actions, they will be accorded a respectful welcome. The reputation of both Thomond Park and Musgrave Park is precious, too precious to be put at risk by the ignorant and provocative actions of any opposition. How long, however, before the relevant authorities take appropriate action against the gougers, biters, and unsporting trash-talkers?