Being cited is no fun for any player - and nobody knows that better than I do
I was cited three times in my career - two were deserved but one was totally unfair
I was glad to see that Paul O’Connell wasn’t cited after the Leinster game the other night. At the time, I thought the ball was there to be kicked and it was only when you slowed it down that it looked like there might have been a problem.
The timing was split-second and I don’t honestly think there was much he could have done differently. To suspend him for it afterwards, you would be saying that he had time to think through the outcome of kicking the ball. You would have been saying that it was a red-card offence.
Being cited is no fun, that much I know for sure. If anyone can be considered an expert on it, I can. I was cited three times in my career and all three times I got suspended. For two of them – a stamp on Mark Lewis of Cardiff and the famous incident with Leo Cullen – I have to hold my hands up and admit my guilt.
Though neither was malicious, I was reckless both times and I deserved to be suspended. But in between times, I got done for nothing more than a bit of rucking on Rodney So’oailo against the All Blacks, which I still think was totally undeserved.
The Mark Lewis one in 2006 was stupid on my part. We were pushing for a bonus point and we were dominating them with our maul, which he kept trying to drag down. It was pure frustration – I went in to get him out of the way and ended up standing on his calf. There was no venom in it but it was the wrong thing to do and I had no excuse for it.
The problem for me came from the fact that he hurt his knee somewhere along the way and the Cardiff management felt I might have been the one to do it. So when the citing commissioner went into the dressing room after the game – as he does with all teams, just to see if they have any issues – my name came up. Word got back to us that I might have a case to answer and sure enough, the next day the Munster management was told that I had been cited.
A few days later I was up in Dublin to defend myself. I went into Huguenot House on St Stephen’s Green – a building I ended up becoming far too familiar with – and went in front of the panel. I had already met Lewis and apologised to him and he was fine about it. I knew I really had no great case to make in my defence.
I thought that maybe it was stretching things a bit to say that I caused his knee injury but that didn’t change the fact that I shouldn’t have done what I did. I got a six-week suspension and that was the end of it. I only had myself to blame but even so, it’s a far from enjoyable experience.
It’s a totally modern one as well – the game has changed so much over the years and the stuff that guys would have got away with in the 1980s and 1990s just won’t be allowed nowadays. I was at a match before Christmas where I was introduced to Wade Dooley, the big England lock that I would have grown up watching. I asked what he was up to now and he said he was a citing commissioner.
“Good God,” I said. “Sure you took no prisoners yourself when you were playing. Maybe I should get into that!”
The game has definitely changed. You have to be so careful with your feet now. You are still allowed to ruck but it’s very technical – you have to be moving forward and pushing your feet in a backward motion.
It’s right that there are rules governing this area of the game but in the heat of battle when you have guys like Richie McCaw and David Pocock lying on the ball, the difference between a downward motion and a backward motion can be minuscule. Get the wrong disciplinary panel on the wrong day and that small difference can lead to big consequences
I found that out to my cost when I got my second citing in 2008. It still bugs me, that one, because there was no way I deserved it. And that’s not just my opinion – it’s the opinion of the referee on the day. I rucked So’oailo to get him off the ball – it wasn’t even that aggressive, it wasn’t near any limbs or anything – and the referee Mark Lawrence gave us the penalty. He was standing right beside the incident and decided that the All Blacks were killing the ball and that I was perfectly entitled to do what I did.
I never gave it another thought. Sometimes you know well that you might be in bother. You know you might have crossed the line and you worry until the word comes through that the citing commissioner has decided whether you have a case to answer or not. But this time, it just never occurred to me that there was anything to think about.
So when I heard the next day that I was being cited, I couldn’t believe it. I have no problem admitting when I crossed the line. The first and third citings of my career, I was 100 per cent guilty and I’ve no complaints and no defence. But this was nothing. It was less than nothing.
We were staying in the Shelbourne so the trip to Huguenot House was literally a 30-second walk. The IRB’s disciplinary panel consisted of one guy – a barrister from Scotland. When we got there, I actually thought this was going to work in my favour – we met Tony Woodcock, who had also been cited, on his way out and the guy had decided that because he got a yellow card during the game, that punishment had been enough.
Since Woodcock had been carded for a clear punch, I figured that this was like getting a judge who was in a good mood. We shook hands and I reckoned I was home and hosed. If a straight punch doesn’t get you a suspension, sure a bit of rucking is a five-minute job. This was going to be a piece of cake.
I went in with Declan Kidney and Paul McNaughton and the IRFU solicitor. Mark Lawrence was there to explain how he saw the incident.
In his evidence, he said that he had reviewed the tape and had looked at the incident and saw no reason to change his opinion. As far as he was concerned, it was a penalty against New Zealand for the number eight going off his feet. He even said: “Look, we’re all human, we can all make mistakes and referees can make them just as easily as anyone else. But having looked at the tape, I would not change my opinion.”
So obviously I was thinking, ‘Well that’s that then.’ This guy had been a referee for 14 years, he’d refereed in two World Cups, he’d gone back and looked at the incident and saw nothing wrong. I was nearly looking at my watch, thinking I’d make it back to the hotel for dinner with time to spare at this point.
The barrister asked me a few questions about the incident, the IRB put their case for the prosecution if you like and then we left the room for 10 minutes while he made his decision.
I got the shock of my life when we came back in. He deemed the referee to be incorrect, he deemed my explanation not to be good enough and he deemed from the footage he watched himself that this was a red-card offence.
He basically jumped four levels of the disciplinary ladder – the incident went from being worthy of a penalty to Ireland to, in his mind, not just a penalty to New Zealand, not just a yellow card for me but a red card and a three-week suspension.
He thanked us for coming in, put on his top coat and his hat and headed off.
This felt totally unfair but there was nothing I could do about it. I know I was no angel over the years and as I say, on the other two citings, I hold my hands up. But this one just brought home to me how precarious the citing process is.
I was completely powerless even though I had the referee’s support.
Yet on the basis of one guy’s opinion – a guy who had just cleared Tony Woodcock after he’d thrown an obvious punch – I was deemed worthy of a red card offence and a three-week suspension. I was just totally dismayed by it.
It’s a killer being on the inside of that process.
Now, obviously, most of the time if you’re there it’s your own stupid fault. That was the case with the incident with Leo Cullen and I paid the price for it.
The worst part of that one was the waiting around – there was nearly a week and a half between the match and the hearing. Normally you wouldn’t have to wait that long but that one took ages. There’s no point in me going into it again because we all know what happened in the end.
I have to say, for all my own scrapes with it, the citing process is a very good thing for the game. It has made players more careful and in a physical game where players are bigger and bigger every year, it has taken some of the uglier incidents out of the sport.
The game will always be physical, there will always be niggle, there will always be fellas stepping on bodies and the odd punch thrown. I don’t really mind that as long as there’s no malicious intent.
That’s why Paul O’Connell wasn’t cited, I’d say. It was careless but there was no malice in it. He didn’t go in with the intention of kicking Dave Kearney in the head, just with the intention of kicking the ball. In the heat of battle, he had to go for it.