No early Christmas present for O’Connell as ban is upheld

MUNSTER skipper Paul O’Connell received bad news yesterday, as a European Rugby Cup (ERC) appeals committee decided a four-week ban was just reward for the red card he sustained in the Heineken Cup win over the Ospreys earlier this month.

In the urgency of a pre-Christmas appeal, O’Connell sat and argued his case alongside legal representative Donal Spring and his Munster team manager Shaun Payne in a conference meeting.

The ban stands however, and O’Connell, though still free to play for Munster in the Heineken Cup clash against Toulon next month, won’t be given the opportunity for game time before that fixture.

An ERC statement read: “At the independent Disciplinary Hearing on December 16, the Judicial Officer, HHJ Jeff Blackett (England), upheld the red card and determined that the act had been deliberate but that there had been no intention to injure.”

Munster had hoped the ban would have been reduced by at least a week, allowing O’Connell to figure in the Heineken Cup build up by featuring against Glasgow in the Magners League on January 8.

Connacht officials are confident the Galway Sportsground will thaw by Monday so the delayed Magners League clash with Munster can go ahead.

Connacht yesterday forced to put back the kick-off by 24 hours, with the fixture now slated for Monday, December 27 with a 6.10pm kick-off.

The freezing conditions on Wednesday night had defied their best efforts to save the playing surface. All original tickets will be valid for the game, which is set to be shown on TG4.

Munster last night named an under- strength squad for the encounter, with many front-line internationals rested under the IRFU Player Welfare Programme.

Experienced campaigners Ronan O’Gara, Peter Stringer and John Hayes are nonetheless included, although Doug Howlett — who reportedly may face a fine after he was arrested by gardaí, following a public order incident in Kilkenny city earlier this week — is among those to miss out.

A further story relating to the participation of a second Munster player in the off-field controversy in Kilkenny is expected to break today and it relates to one of the home based group who was allegedly involved in the incident that briefly led to the arrest of Howlett.

Connacht will be without long-term injury victim John Muldoon because of a fractured arm for an indefinite period of time, while prop Brett Wilkinson also misses out. Elwood plans to announce his team at lunchtime today.

Meanwhile, Ireland’s reputation for producing top class rugby referees has been highlighted by the appointment of four men to take charge in each of the two remaining rounds of the Heineken Cup.

Alain Rolland, Alan Lewis, George Clancy and Peter Fitzgibbon lead the representation from Ireland and form the biggest contribution from any one country in the closing group stages.

Elsewhere, Dave Pearson of England will oversee Munster’s vital Pool 3 visit to Toulon, while Welshman Nigel Owens will be the man in the middle when London Irish visit Thomond Park in the final round six days later.

Prior to that, Owens will handle Biarritz’s visit to play Ulster in Ravenhill in a potentially defining Pool 4 clash, with Berdos the man in the middle for the northerners’ final pool clash at Aironi.

Leinster will take on Saracens in round five under the stewardship of Romain Poite of France, with Englishman Andrew Small taking charge of Joe Schmidt’s side’s trip to Racing Metro on the final weekend.

MUNSTER squad (v Connacht): Backs: S Deasy, J Murphy, C Murray, P Stringer, R O'Gara, D Hurley, L Mafi, S Tuitupou, T Gleeson, B Murphy, P Warwick; Forwards: W du Preez, M Sherry, D Varley, S Henry, J Hayes, Dave Ryan, P Borlase, S Archer, D Ryan, I Nagle, A Quinlan, B Holland, T O'Donnell, N Ronan, P Butler.

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