Munster will have to do it without O'Gara as ERC issue one-match ban
RUGBY:For the first time in 14 seasons and 105 games, dating back to the quarter-finals in 1999, Munster must go into their latest do-or-die Heineken Cup mission, against Racing Metro on Sunday at Thomond Park, without either of their twin totems, Ronan O’Gara or Paul O’Connell.
This follows O’Gara’s one-week suspension by an ERC disciplinary hearing in Dublin yesterday after Ireland’s (126 games) and Munster’s (230) most-capped player was cited for kicking the Edinburgh lock Seán Cox in the province’s Heineken Cup win.
O’Gara attended a disciplinary hearing at the ERC offices yesterday along with Munster chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald and team manager, Niall O’Donovan.
Under the IRB’s sanctioning regime for foul play, which the ERC is obliged to follow, the entry points for a breach of Law 10.4(c) where a player kicks an opponent are: 4 weeks (lower end), 8 weeks (mid range) and 12 weeks up to 52 weeks (top end).
Although O’Gara admitted his guilt, the suspension had been reduced from four to two weeks on account of his good disciplinary record by the independent judicial officer, Judge Jeff Blackett (England), and further halved due to him being provoked by a body check and his claim that he had intended to trip the player not kick him.
While the suspension ensures his availability for Ireland’s opening Six Nations game against Wales, the reduction from two to one weeks has no tangible effect and means he will miss Sunday’s game.
“It’s hugely disappointing to miss such a crucial game on Sunday, and I’m sorry for the fans, the management and the players” he admitted last night.
“But if you do the crime you’ve got to do the time. I couldn’t ask for a fairer hearing. The judge was a thorough gentleman. He accepted my action was a trip, not a kick, and I think that’s why it was reduced significantly.
“He also said I was the first Irishman he could remember pleading guilty to the charge before the event,” O’Gara noted with a laugh, “and I think that stood to me. It’s been emotional few days, deeply stressing because all the possible scenarios go through your head and at least it’s resolved now.”
There has been a remarkable and unnerving changing of the guard within Munster over the last few years, what with the retirements of Jerry Flannery, John Hayes, Alan Quinlan, David Wallace, Denis Leamy and others, along with the departures of Tomás O’Leary, Paul Warwick, Lifeimi Mafi and others.
The net effect is Doug Howlett and Donncha O’Callaghan will be the only players from the starting XV which won the second of Munster’s Heineken Cup triumphs in Cardiff in 2008 against Toulouse when Munster line up for Sunday’s kick-off at 12.45pm.
The last time Munster went into a match without O’Gara and O’Connell was the quarter-final defeat away to Colomiers in 1999, since when O’Gara has missed only three matches in the 2004-05 campaign and the second pool game this season at home Edinburgh – one of O’Connell’s two appearances this season.
“I’ve been training with the lads all week and the atmosphere has been great,” said O’Gara. “There’s no uncertainty over this weekend. With two games to go there’s always a bit of room for flexibility but now we know exactly what we need to achieve on Sunday and I think it’s well within our compass to achieve that.”
“It’s a massive occasion, the crowd will be up for it, there’s still an awful lot of supporters who really believe in the team and that’s crucial, the atmosphere that they set. I think the players are up for it and they know that there’s a big one in them.”
O’Gara was relieved the suspension wasn’t at the lower level entry of four weeks, which would have ruled him out of Ireland’s opening two RBS Six Nations games against Wales and England. That in turn would have placed a cloud over his presence in the tournament and, in turn, on his ambitions of going on the Lions tour.
The near certainty now is he will be part of the Ireland squad for that opener in Cardiff and for the remainder of the Six Nations, with Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan confined to duty with the Irish Wolfhounds against the English Saxons in Galway next Friday night.
“In that regard it’s cruel missing Sunday but once Sunday passes, time is a healer and come Monday morning I’ll be fully focused on Ireland and achieving something with them in this Six Nations campaign, so that’s hugely exciting and something to look forward to.
“The next few days are going to be really tough and watching on Sunday is going to be painful but come Monday it’s a whole new chapter and a chapter to look forward to, considering how well the December camp went.”
While the Munster pack is likely to be unchanged, the likelihood also is Rob Penney might opt to shift Simon Zebo to fullback, with Keith Earls moving to the wing and Casey Laulala recalled to the midfield alongside James Downey.
Once again last Sunday, as a wilting Munster strove for the additional two tries that would have earned them an invaluable bonus point, the thought occurred that an injection of Peter Stringer’s laser gun pass would have helped them up the tempo. But, following on from his loans to Saracens and Newcastle last season, the 35-year-old, who has won 98 caps for Ireland and played 230 times for Munster, has been linked with another loan, this time to Bath.