Subscriber OnlyRugby

Gordon D’Arcy: Trying to defend the indefensible not the way forward for either the GAA or rugby

Tackling competency is a serious problem in rugby now as is inconsistency when it comes to punishing transgressors

Fossa captain Paudie Clifford was on hand to receive the cup after helping his team to win the All-Ireland Junior Football Championship final at Croke Park, but he could just as easily been on his way to hospital instead having received an elbow to the face from Stewartstown Harps’ Anton Coyle. It was a gratuitously violent act that has no place in sport.

Six red cards were doled out in total in a bad-tempered end game, but Coyle’s action was by far the most egregious.

It blew my mind to read some of the social media commentary after the match, where, without defending his actions there were plenty seeking to deflect from the incident, pointing out the transgressions of other players in an attempt to justify, minimise, or just muddy any debate.

The parish, club, county culture in GAA is to rarely castigate one of their own if the spotlight can be retrained elsewhere. It represents the sport’s Sicilian defence, trying to grab that centre ground in any disciplinary process. And I say this as someone who loves GAA and has been involved since childhood.


If Clifford had suffered a broken cheek or eye socket what is his recourse in the aftermath? Coyle will be punished under the disciplinary rules and will serve a ban but what about the victim if he is unable to go to work for a period and suffers financially as a result? The GAA would be loath to open the sluice gates to civil action between players on a regular basis.

Rugby has the potential to be sleepwalking into a similarly worrying situation. The normalisation of red cards, and the continued spate of head injuries was once again graphically highlighted in the latest round of Champions Cup matches at the weekend.

There were five red cards but the one that made me wince most was London Irish fullback Ben Loader’s attempted tackle on the Stormers’ outhalf Manie Libbok. The tackler was upright, provoking a fearsome collision and a clash of heads that according to accounts left Libbok with concussion symptoms.

Loader, a 24-year-old professional, was technically poor and reckless in contact to a point where, had it been a teenager, you’d initially have read him the riot act before explaining at length, as much for his safety as that of the victim, the folly of trying to tackle in that manner.

There is a serious problem in rugby now in not alone tackling competency but the inconsistency when it comes to punishing transgressors.

The mixed messages coming from officials on the pitch in the way they interpret the laws and disciplinary tribunals in doling varying lengths of suspensions for broadly similar incidents is ultimately counterproductive when encouraging a change in behaviour. Reducing a ban by a week so players can attend “tackle school” is as ridiculous as it sounds.

Rugby needs to change quicker than its current trajectory with regards to head shots or run the risk of a very serious injury or a civil case being thrown into the mix. Players can be committed and hard-hitting, an example of which was the tit-for-tat battle between Garry Ringrose and Chris Harris at Kingsholm on Saturday.

They hit hard and low with excellent timing in a compelling physical duel that incorporated the type of intensity that in the old days you’d acknowledge with a beer and a smile, based on mutual respect for playing hard and fair, as it should be.

Munster duo Shane Daly and Mike Haley offered superb examples of how to defend in the first case and tackle in the second. Daly’s reading of the game in defence, his decision to step in and the ensuing timing and technique in the tackle, denied the Northampton Saints a gilt-edged try-scoring chance that might have won the match at Thomond Park for the visitors.

Haley demonstrated that courage and good technique brings the great and good to the ground irrespective of size and speed in felling Lewis Ludlum. In contrast Jack O’Donoghue’s carelessness in contact earned a deserved red card that very nearly contributed to his team’s undoing.

His sending-off completely changed the momentum of a game, that up to that point looked destined to be a handsome Munster victory, into a nervy endgame where the home side had to hang on grimly for the victory.

The Saints looked like a beaten docket until the card but being a man up suddenly gave them both some self-belief and a foothold in the game. I suspect that if Welsh outhalf Dan Biggar was still at the club and running the show, the Saints might have pursued different tactics in those closing moments, first looking to get the seven points that would have earned a draw and then chasing a penalty or drop goal to win.

Graham Rowntree will be disappointed and frustrated that the sending off prevented Munster from accumulating the bonus point that seemed well within their grasp until that moment.

They now go to Toulouse next Sunday reliant on other results to qualify should they leave with no points. Montpellier, Clermont and Sale would all have to win with bonus points for Munster to miss out on the top eight, an unlikely trio of results given the fixtures.

Thursday’s Ireland squad announcement promises to be interesting and, for those that make it, next weekend’s European games offers an opportunity to rearrange the pecking order in the eyes of head coach Andy Farrell before the group head to Portugal to prepare for the Six Nations Championship.

Munster’s Gavin Coombes has played himself right back into form and few would argue that he’s not the second-best option at number eight behind Caelan Doris. The same metric is true of Craig Casey at scrumhalf behind Jamison Gibson-Park. The level of physical attrition in modern rugby means that injuries are commonplace; the trick is to be in the right place to benefit.

As this season has unfolded Munster, who started poorly and got better, and Ulster, who started superbly and got worse, have enjoyed contrasting fates and that will be reflected in the numbers they contribute to the Irish squad.

Ulster head coach Dan McFarland finally mixed up his squad for the trip to La Rochelle and, with the lashing rain providing a slightly levelling effect, the visitors almost pulled off a surprise, based primarily on showing a great deal of heart and grit. You can do a lot with that as a coach.

There were injuries last week and some high-profile names will come back into contention. For the second week in a row it’s how the Ulster team is set-up that will have ramifications within their environment. Those that grafted so assiduously in La Rochelle won’t want to give up the jersey regardless of who is available.

Five points against the Sale Sharks might be enough to get them a place in the knock-out stages depending on other results. In pursuit of that goal, it is less about the technical and more about harnessing emotional energy.

EPCR will have been pleased that a tournament still trying to shake off its ugly duckling format produced some cracking games in round three, one of which was Leinster’s victory over Gloucester, which contained several spectacular tries and great individual moments.

I had the pleasure of working alongside the excellent Nolli Waterman for ITV, provided with the best seat in the house to enjoy an almost complete performance from young Leinster centre Jamie Osborne.

When you play like that, age is a number not a barrier. Ringrose is the only one of the frontline centres from the November Test series currently playing. The maturity of Osborne’s performance was of particular interest to me as it showed just how far he has come in such a short time.

When a player breaks through it is usually through being proficient at a particular skill; broken-field running, passing or being excellent in the air. Osborne’s contribution was phenomenal starting with his touch kicks from deep in his own 22, quick from hand to foot and belting the ball prodigious distances.

He carries the ball in two hands and possesses excellent footwork which makes defenders anxious, but it is the basics done exceptionally well that stand out more for me; a step to straighten before passing, knowing when and why to pass.

His try was a lovely combination of timing on to Gibson-Park’s pass and footwork to beat the last defender and go under the posts. Bundee Aki’s absence for Connacht, James Hume and Stuart McCloskey being dogged by injury and somewhat out of kilter with their best version as players, coupled with the form of Cathal Forde and Osborne could see a temporary changing of the guard.

Form, selection and availability at provincial level has given Andy Farrell extraordinary flexibility in compiling his squad, and without doubt players are starting to make it harder and harder to be left out. It’s exactly as he’d want.