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Owen Doyle: Nika Amashukeli shows he has joined the top rank of referees

Georgian referee added to the occasion as Munster produced a terrific display to silence the doubters – myself included

Munster were not enjoying the play, so they tore up the script. And with that, many predictions went up in smoke, mine certainly did. –

I had forecast a tough day out for the men in red, and, if they could keep the defeat to a reasonable score, they’d be doing well. That was based on the supposedly logical premise that their recent long injury list would make Toulon, who have an eye-watering budget, just too hot to handle.

I can also admit that when the home team went 10-0 up after just 15 minutes, I texted a good friend, “this is looking grim already”.

Oh, me of little faith. But without divine enlightenment, who on earth could have foretold that Munster would win the remaining 65 minutes 28-8?


It was a mesmerising performance, bucketloads of character, guts, determination and skill. An awesome victory against all the odds, terrific displays all around – hats off to everybody.

What Graham Rowntree and his fellow coaches bring to the party is so different, so immeasurably better, than the days when the previous regime dictated play.

Georgian referee Nika Amashukeli showed once again that he is now established in the top quartile of elite referees. Any aspiring official should study his positioning and anticipation – you can’t have one without the other, and also his brief concise explanations.

Importantly too, he holds no truck with players who wish to open debates. Politely and firmly he puts a quick end to those needless discussions, and thankfully no first name nonsense in sight.

However, controversy erupted after the amazing Tom Ahern had dotted down. The officials reviewed a potential knock-on by Calvin Nash in the build up. Did the ball brush Nash’s arm, or was it his finger which touched it, nudging it ever so slightly?

While not by any means the clearest of knock-ons, the replays persuaded me that the score should have been chalked off, admittedly on a marginal balance.

However, it was the referee’s and TMO Ben Whitehouse’s view which counted; the howls of derision from the Stade Felix Mayol faithful demonstrated complete disapproval of the decision to award the try.

Then Gavin Coombes, charging for the line, was brought to ground; after a slight delay, he placed the ball on the line, it looked a definite seven-pointer. But no, the placing had not been immediate and Coombes had moved the ball from one hand to the other; I’m unsure if he had been released in the tackle, and that aspect also needed consideration.

However, Amashukeli and the TMO were again in agreement, the call this time going against Munster.

We hear a lot about reducing the input from the TMO, and let’s hope that comes about sooner rather than later. Once a review is called and all the camera angles shown, the whole thing becomes microscopically forensic, a sensible change is sorely needed.

The match was remarkable for the lack of scrums, by minute 54 the count stood at one – yes, just one. That was due to very accurate handling by both teams, and the judicious calling of “advantage over” for minor infringements, such as knock-ons, by Amashukeli.

In contrast Leinster v Stade Français did have scrums, and resets too. The referee, French-born Englishman Christophe Ridley, would probably agree that this set-piece needs urgent attention by World Rugby. The outcomes on it from WR’s “shape of the game” deliberations can’t come soon enough.

Ridley, who will shortly referee his first Six Nations, is potentially better than some who are already at that level. However, he needs to take a leaf out of the Amashukeli play book. Standing motionless at the back of the breakdown has the high risk of leaving any referee, irrespective of his pace, stranded and unsighted for touchdowns. And that’s what happened, not just once either.

My Saturday had started with a brisk constitutional, during which I came across the Stade Français team, seemingly out for a stroll. They were a glum-looking bunch trudging along, looking for all the world as if they were heading for the guillotine. With seven Leinster tries conceded, they might as well have been, although the sharply-honed blade would have put them out of their misery a lot quicker.

While a near full attendance will have appreciated the Leinster display, imperfect as it was, the visitors put up scant resistance. Fielding weakened teams is a significant problem for the tournament, and it’s not an easy fix.

Toulouse balanced the overall French accounts somewhat with seven tries of their own, in a jam-packed Kingspan Stadium. However, this was no capitulation by the Ulster men, who managed 24 points of their own.

They were faced, however, with one of the best teams on the planet playing to their very best, so the result was really never in doubt. Of course, a massive budget is available to Toulouse coach Ugo Mola, the size of which Dan McFarland can only dream about. Does it make a difference? Of course it does.

There’s hardly a clearer indication of the power of the French, financial and otherwise, than the aggregate scores of Bordeaux and La Rochelle against Saracens and Leicester respectively. The two French teams put a mind-blowing combined 100 points past these two iconic English clubs, with only 27 against. Where is it all going? Your guess is as good as mine.