While the furore around the non-citing of Paul O’Connell is dragging on and becoming tiresome at this stage, I felt it would be worthwhile to look at exactly what is being said about the matter in France. There’s an anger at the perceived preferential treatment of O’Connell, and this has morphed into a wider debate on whether French players are being punished for the French authorities’ virtuousness in charging them, as well as questions of a conspiracy theory against the French teams in Europe. The best place to start is with France’s rugby bible, the semi-weekly Midi Olympique.
‘Midol’ hits the press every Monday and Friday, consisting of 30 pages of pure rugby. Last Monday’s edition (22nd April) dedicates its first two pages to a “Dossier” on the O’Connell story. Under the headline “Irish Shenanigans”, Marc Duzan’s lead article adressess the existence of a “conspiracy theory”. The paper’s source “close to the case” suggests that John Feehan (CEO of 6 Nations, Lions and Pro 12) and Philip Browne (Chief Exec. of IRFU) had been involved in pressurising Citing Officer Eddie Walsh. Ronan O’Gara’s kick on Sean Cox is brought up with the reminder that he only served a 1-week suspension. Duzan finishes by saying that the “values of the rugby family” mean this can all only be coincidence, but says “it is right to question this unfortunate collision of occurrences.”
The next article bears the banner “O’Connell is Not an Angel”. Journalist Jerome Prevot paints the Munster captain as the “anti-Cudmore”. Quoting an Irish colleague (who was snitching lads?), implications are made that O’Connell is “immune” to giving away penalties because of his “aura”. Nigel Owens is then linked to several of Munster’s European exploits. The POC vs. Cudmore fight is brought up, saying that POC landed more blows, but that his “cunning” show of innocence towards the linesman before unleashing had spared him. The Jonathan Thomas incident is mentioned next, with O’Connell’s 4-week ban compared to the 10 weeks (note: subsequently reduced) received by Gavin Henson for a similar incident.
Across the page, various concerned parties weigh in with quotes. Clermont coach Vern Cotter says that referee Owens will have to be “very vigilant” around O’Connell’s actions on Saturday. Patrick Wolff, vice-president of the LNR, states that it is “unthinkable that O’Connell is not brought before a disciplinary committee to explain or justify.” Marcus Horan assures the French public that POC “is not a violent player.” Finally, and oddly, David Attoub (he of the 70-week gouging ban) is asked for his take on the matter. Unsurprisingly, he steers well clear: “I don’t want to speak about this player, or incident… I don’t want my comments to be misinterpreted.”
Another article questions whether the French are being too “righteous” in banning their own players’ misdemeanors thus “endangering their own interests”. The piece questions how O’Connell isn’t cited for “a kick to the head of an opponent” while Jerome Fillol gets 14 weeks for spitting on Stringer. Finishing up the 2-page spread is the reminder that the 3 longest bans in ERC history were imposed on representatives of French clubs: Trevor Brennan (5 years), Richard Nones (2 years) and Attoub (70 weeks).
The feeling of ill-treatment took another turn yesterday with the news that Clermont’s request to register Mike Delany to their H Cup squad had been rejected. The ERC held firm with their assertion that all players must be registered by the 21st of March, but that has not gone down well in Clermont. The club’s manager Marc Lhermet needlessly brought Munster into the equation, questioning how Delany “can’t play in the Heineken Cup this season, but Munster can use Paul O’Connell this weekend.”
The reaction from fans on message boards and comment sections on French rugby websites has been equally disbelieving. The perceived preferential treatment of Munster is widespread, with some suggesting that if the tables were turned, and Munster needed an outhalf brought in, the ERC would have no problem granting the request. There’s lots of disgruntlement, but what does it all really mean in terms of the match on Saturday?
Very little. It’s unlikely that the players are very affected by any of this. You could suggest that anything to take Clermont’s focus away from Saturday is positive for Munster. You could argue that this entire episode suits the Munster mentality and simply puts more pressure on Clermont. But realistically, Cotter will be ensuring his players stay focused on their Heineken Cup goal. This squad is hugely motivated and in-form. While the journalists, fans and dirigeants debate, question and complain, the players will be readying themselves for battle on Saturday.
Photos: Martin Dobey, Fearless Fred.