Leinster happy to avail of the benefit of the doubt
FROM THE BLINDSIDE:Like Munster in their heyday, champions Leinster are now tending to get the majority of the 50-50 decisions when the referee has to make a big call
WHEN MUNSTER played Saracens at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry back in 2008, we were at the very top of our game. We had just beaten Gloucester on their own patch in the quarter-final and we were on our way to our second Heineken Cup win in three seasons. We were playing some good rugby and we had momentum. A lot of people felt that we were favourites to win the competition even before we played in the semi-final.
Right at the very end of that game, we were two points ahead but Saracens were throwing the kitchen sink at us. We were defending close to our own 22 and we knew it was all down to the last possession of the game. Richard Hill came at us with a pick and drive and when the tackles came in on him, the ball was slow in coming back.
To everyone’s eyes, there was obviously something illegal going on in that ruck. Either Hill was holding on to the ball to stop us getting our hands on it or we were holding on to him to stop him getting it back quickly. One way or the other, Nigel Owens was going to blow his whistle.
The relief when he blew it up and pointed his arm in our direction was huge. It was as clear as day that he could just as easily have gone the other way with it.
We knew it, Saracens knew it, in fairness I’d say Nigel knew it. It’s very harsh to say that call decided the game because there were 79 minutes of play that came before it and it had been one of those days where we’d have felt a lot of calls had gone against us.
But it’s a near certainty that if he’d given that one to Saracens, we’d have gone out of the Heineken Cup. It was a 50-50 call and we were blessed to come out on the right side of it.
I was thinking about this on Saturday in the closing stages of Leinster’s game against Exeter. With the scores at 6-6 around the 68th minute, Richardt Strauss came in from the side of a breakdown for what looked to me to be a fairly straightforward penalty call in Exeter’s favour.
The referee didn’t give it and Leinster turned over the ball. Five minutes later, Leinster were awarded just as obvious a penalty up the other end of the pitch and Johnny Sexton put them 9-6 ahead. It was a big call and it went in favour of the team that is going for three titles in a row.
That can happen and Leinster did well to take full advantage of it. You have to make hay while the sun is shining. When a team is on a roll, you are perceived that bit differently. Your small weaknesses get overlooked, any little frailties that you might have are ignored – right up until the point where you lose!
One thing you will definitely find is you get the tight calls in games. It’s a totally subconscious thing but there’s no doubt that it happens. Everyone’s talking about the team that’s winning trophies, everyone’s admiring the success and a part of everyone buys into it. That goes for the team itself, the opposition and the referees.
Of course you will have your days when everything goes wrong. But by and large, a team that is winning and is coming up with consistent high performance will get away with a little bit more.
The key as a player is to take advantage of it. When Munster were on top, we knew people were always complaining about us going off our feet at the breakdown. They made me out to be among the worst offenders. Even if I probably thought at the time that I was getting penalised more than I deserved to be, as one of the top teams in Europe we were definitely getting the edge on the 50-50 decisions.
It wasn’t just us. The dominant teams in any sport get the same treatment. I’ve watched Manchester United over the years get penalties nobody else would get and come out of games at Old Trafford with results they didn’t deserve. Opposition managers would complain. They weren’t saying referees were deliberately biased against them. It was more that they were pointing out the reality that the big teams have the advantage. Heineken Cup games are so close that all it takes is for your team to get the majority of the 50-50s and they won’t be long adding up.
Leinster played poorly on Saturday because they weren’t allowed to play well. Exeter came in with nothing to lose and the only way they were going to win was to try to keep everything tight and low-scoring. If that call had gone against Strauss as it should have, they’d have had 12 minutes to hold out with a three-point lead. Knowing Leinster, it may not have been enough – but it just goes to show how important it is to get those calls in your favour.
So you do as much as you can to tilt the balance your way. Most refereeing decisions are pretty straightforward – a knock-on or forward pass is usually fairly obvious, same with an offside. Tries go to the TMO. But the breakdown is a judgement call for him so you do your best to influence that judgement.
It’s one of the reasons the breakdown is so frantic. You are taught to contest the breakdown with so much speed that if you do happen to be coming in at fractionally the wrong angle, it won’t be so obvious as if you do it slowly. An obvious offence leaves a referee a simple decision. So you go in hell-for-leather and make it a dogfight. If everybody is doing that, it clouds the issue for the referee and makes the whole thing more of a 50-50 call.
That’s what you need it to be, especially at home. Deep down you will feel that it’s something in your favour rather than something to worry about. And that only grows the more experienced you are and the more success you have.
You can’t be relying on it all the same. When we played Montauban in the new Thomond Park in 2008, we were champions and they were playing their first ever game in the Heineken Cup. I remember being surprised as the game went on that we weren’t getting the majority of the calls and maybe it got into our heads a little bit because we didn’t really play well that night at all.
Wayne Barnes gave us a decision at the end and Rog was able to kick the winner. It was probably a bit more than a 50-50 call in our favour but given the way the game had been going, he could very easily not have given it.
What happened with us from 2006 to 2009 is happening with Leinster now. Their success and their momentum is giving them more licence around the breakdown than the likes of Exeter are getting. They will take more chances when it comes to going off their feet or coming in from the side because they know that they will get away with 20 or 30 per cent more of it than the opposition. They load the dice in their favour by doing their work around the breakdown with huge speed and intensity. Once you have all that going for you, it will mean that you get away with a poor all-round performance like they did on Saturday.
Good for them. It would have been a shame for them to start with a draw at home to Exeter because it could have sunk their whole campaign. Huge experience of winning and a feel for what you can get away with was what got them over the line on Saturday and you could only admire it in them. Pulling Clermont out of the draw meant Leinster probably got stuck with the toughest pool in the competition so they could do with a bit of luck. In a competition where the margins are this tight, you take whatever you can get.