Payne of this defeat set to linger for Ulster
Ulster paid a bigger price than they should have for something that was clearly an accident
I was coming out of the back of the stand at Ravenhill after the match on Saturday when I ran into Jerome Garces, the referee who had made such a difference to the game by sending off Jared Payne after four minutes. I wouldn’t known him well but I’ve met him at a few matches over the years and I’d always say hello to him.
There was a really sombre atmosphere around the place by that stage. It was such a contrast to what had gone before. All day the buzz had built up around Ravenhill. With all the building work that has gone on, this felt like a new era for the place.
The fans gathered from early afternoon and the place was humming by the time the game started. Even when it was on, even after the Payne red card, the supporters did everything they could to lift their team. When they finally fell short and the fans started drifting away afterwards, it was all very subdued.
You could see that Garces was uncomfortable. He knew he had had an effect on the game and there was no doubt that most Ulster people held him responsible for the defeat. He had spent the whole game after the red card getting booed so he couldn’t escape it. He had the face of someone who was after making a big decision and he seemed at odds with himself.
I had a lot of sympathy for him. On a basic human level, it didn’t matter whether he made the right or wrong call. What mattered, if you were Jerome Garces, was that the game had turned on a huge call he made really early in the game. You wouldn’t wish that on any referee.
And actually, if you take the emotion out of it, you’d have to respect the fact that he made the hardest decision of all. A yellow card would obviously have been the easy way out. Saracens wouldn’t have had any problem with it, Ulster wouldn’t have had any problem with it, the game would have been anyone’s from there on out. But Garces took the harder road and no matter if you think he was correct or not to do so, there’s something to admire in that. You wouldn’t fancy having to make that call.
I met Alex Goode as well. He was a bit groggy and he had no real recollection of the incident. He still had a headache, a couple of hours after it had happened. His shoulder and neck were sore. He told me that he had wanted to play on but the Saracens medical people had to hold him down on the ground while he was saying this, so he was obviously out of it.
It was a huge impact he’d taken. So it was good to see that he was up and about and on his feet. It’s less than a fortnight since there was a serious neck injury in rugby league – the Australian player Alex McKinnon broke his neck in a tackle and has spinal damage that could prevent him ever walking again – so it’s easy to see how these things can go badly wrong. Goode was in fine form, which was the most important thing. Far more important than whether a referee got his decision right or not.
I didn’t get into the rights and wrongs of it with Garces. It wouldn’t be fair on him – he certainly didn’t have to justify himself to me. But he said it was a shame that a decision like that had to be made. Having such a big impact on the game clearly didn’t sit well with him.
Was a red card justified? The simple and short answer is yes. It really hurt Ulster and it cost them the game but you can’t say it was an outrageous decision or a scandal or anything like that. Garces was within his rights and I think Ulster people actually harm their argument with some of the points they make.
Johann Muller and Mark Anscombe both said afterwards that Payne had his eye on the ball the whole way. But if you watch it again, Payne takes a glance up the field a few steps before contact is made. It’s a natural thing to do because you want to pick a point where you think the ball is going to come down.
He wasn’t looking at the player and I don’t think the collision was anything other than accidental. But you can’t say he was looking at the ball the whole time. Yes, he was looking at it when he ran into Goode but the question Garces had to try and answer was whether he could have prevented the collision. It wasn’t whether he meant it.
Payne’s whole problem came down to timing. He overran the ball. People have said that he should have got himself into the air and I am certain that if he had been able to, he would have. But because he mistimed his run, the ball came down quicker than he had intended or expected. If his timing had been more accurate, he’d have got off the ground and there probably wouldn’t even have been a yellow card in it.
Put yourself in the referee’s position. There is a collision between a player in the air and a player on the ground. The player in the air has gone past horizontal and has come down on his neck and shoulder. That is red card territory, no question about it. The IRB protocols are clear on it.
The reason behind those protocols is to assure people watching that even though rugby is a physical game, it’s a safe game. There’s an argument – and it’s a valid argument – that says young players watching that on Saturday will see that the sanction for being careless with someone jumping through the air like that is so huge that they will always do the right thing. Safety is most important.
All that said, I still believe a yellow card would have been enough. Who would have had a problem with a yellow card? Nobody. The length of the stoppage and the amount of slow-motion replays had as much to do with it being a red card as the actual incident itself.
Garces was within his rights to pull out the red but if Goode had bounced up, it’s hard to see how he’d have gone for it. The stretcher, the oxygen mask, the five-minute delay – they all added up to make it feel like a very grave situation. That had to influence the referee.
But just because it was the right decision doesn’t mean the rule is right. For a player to have to leave the pitch over what was clearly an accident is just wrong. I understand that there has to be a duty of care for someone jumping through the air but if you’re getting sent off, surely there has to be some malice in what you’ve done.
A red card in rugby isn’t like a red card in soccer or GAA. The game these days is such a tactical battle that losing a player for a significant length of time makes it almost impossible to win. You can plan for surviving 10 minutes with a player in the bin – trying to find a way through 76 minutes of 14 v 15 is beyond difficult.
Rugby has changed so much in the past 10 to 15 years. I recall a game against Leinster in the Celtic League final away back in 2001 where they had Eric Miller sent off after 25 minutes. Even though we had nearly an hour to play against them with a full team, we still ended up losing by four points.
You can nearly be sure that wouldn’t happen these days. Back then, there hadn’t been much preparation done for what happens if the opposition went down to 14 men. As the years passed and sin-binnings became such an important part of the game, coaches came up with more and more ways of exploiting a man advantage. Each team has a number of set plays that they call when the time is right.
You only need to watch Saracens’ first try on Saturday to see it. That came from an attacking scrum around the 10-metre line. Ulster had to rearrange themselves with Payne gone so they only put seven men in the scrum, with Chris Henry coming to stand at out-half. It meant all the Munster backs shifting out one position.
Mako Vunipola got the push at loosehead and his side of the scrum came up. Ordinarily, Roger Wilson would have been looking to come off the side of the scrum to help his outhalf but Vunipola had taken away the angle for him to do that so Ruan Pienaar felt he had to shoot across to protect Henry on his inside.
This was exactly what Saracens wanted to happen. Charlie Hodgson went straight for Henry with the ball and as Pienaar shot infield to meet him, he gave an inside pass to put Chris Ashton away into the massive gap left in behind.
In ordinary circumstances, with 15 Ulster players on the pitch, that would be far too simple a play for Saracens to get away with. They wouldn’t have won the scrum as easily against eight men so they’d have had less momentum.
One of the back row would have been able to protect the outhalf rather than Pienaar having to try to do it. And even if Saracens had got that far, Henry would have been there to bring Ashton down once he’d passed Pienaar.
That’s why a red card in rugby is such a high price to pay. It allows teams to profit from what can be very simple plays if they’re clever enough to call them at the right time. It totally shifts the balance of a game.
That’s why I genuinely believe a yellow card would have been enough for what Jared Payne did. If you are going to change the course of a game so drastically, it feels wrong to do it on the back of something that was an accident. No matter what the rules say, Ulster paid a bigger price than they should have.