If Connacht turned up at the Aviva, it was hard to see them, maybe something to do with the needlessly confusing jersey colours. It was quite a thrashing, the visitors looked both dispirited and disorganised as their defence was dismantled, almost at will.
While Leinster supporters will have enjoyed the romp in the park, it was not the sort of hard test which will stand to the team a whole lot better. It'll be a horse of a completely different colour when they visit Leicester Tigers' Welford Road, which is now their quarter-final destination.
The match, nearly inevitably, given what’s going on at the moment, had foul play issues, and it was hard to be on the same page as referee Luke Pearce. First up was Hugo Keenan’s in the air challenge on Tiernan O’Halloran, who landed very heavily. The Leinster man was never in a position to compete for the ball, and the referee’s generous view, that it was just a timing matter, was perplexing. It would have been a very easy yellow card decision, and it was difficult to understand the ‘penalty only’ call.
Aki was shaking his head as he left the pitch, difficult to know if it was in disbelief at the decision, or annoyance with himself
Then Bundee Aki’s head to head challenge on Ireland team-mate Johnny Sexton was dealt with by a yellow card, which very well might have been red. Initially, Pearce told us that this was okay and that the officials had it ‘boxed off.’ But then his “mate,” TMO Tom Foley had another look, and the incident was rightly fully reviewed.
Sexton was shaken, and, again, the official description of the incident did not seem to match what others saw; there appeared to be sufficient force, and danger, for the card to be upgraded, but the referee placed the danger element in the ‘low’ category.
Aki was shaking his head as he left the pitch, difficult to know if it was in disbelief at the decision, or annoyance with himself. If it was the former, then someone might usefully have a word, he doesn’t need to take such risks.
Later on Friday, Frank Murphy was the man in the middle for the incident-packed Bristol v Sale second leg, with the Sharks eventually doing enough to advance. Quite correctly, reading the situation well, he delivered the ultimate sanction to Sale’s Arron Reed - a hard shoulder delivered into an opponent’s face, these hits were very much the order of the day, nearly mandatory.
Sale were later reduced to 13, when Nick Schonert was ‘yellowed’, and were very lucky not to end up playing with 12 when the officials were tolerant of what looked suspiciously like yet another high one. The referee and TMO were busy men indeed, with a lot of stuff necessarily being called in by Brian MacNeice; while the correct outcomes were reached there was a lot of officiating by lengthy action replay.
There has been no improvement in player behaviour, and, surely now, coaches must be held to account
We’d hoped for a special day in Limerick, and we certainly got it. The Thomond Park crowd turned up in good numbers, and played their part too, the support was passionate, as was the display on the pitch. Terrific performances by Jack O’Donohue and man of the match, Peter O’Mahoney, led the way, it truly was the day of the jackler.
In the second half Exeter did something of a number on Munster at ruck time, and the home team would not have been amused at side entries, and men going beyond the ball, being unnoticed by Frenchman Mathieu Raynal. The referee brought a lot to the game, in terms of calmness and general accuracy, but this was an area he needed to beef up, a rare penalty for this offence was kicked by Joey Carberry, who contributed a perfect record off the tee.
Carberry had earlier sliced open the Exeter defence for a solo try, but it was the outrageous wizardry of Simon Zebo’s off-load, creating a try of magic for Damien de Allende, which finally sealed the deal as the clock started to wind down. Everybody could breath at last.
And surprise of surprises, unless I missed something, there was not one TMO review, or penalty, for a head high challenge. So it appears that it can actually be done. Compared to what Frank Murphy had to deal with, this aspect didn’t cause Raynal a single moment of bother.
Finally, to Ulster. Not a seat was left, Ravenhill was jammed to capacity, as Toulouse arrived to overturn their deficit from the first leg. They got there, but by the narrowest possible margin of one point over the two matches. It was cruel, and one could feel the agony of the Ulstermen. There was an early 'yellow' for each team, one to Robert Baloucoune, and one to Dimitri Delibes, actioned by referee Matt Carley.
That seemed to set the tone, and it looked as if these would be the only cards needed on the night, that was until Ulster’s Tom O’Toole was red carded for head contact, with Anthony Jellonch the victim. In the same incident, Rob Herring was excused the use of his shoulder, with Carley determining that he couldn’t get out of Jellonch’s way.
Over in La Rochelle, Wayne Barnes was, my opinion, correct to red card Bordeaux-Begles' Ma'ama Vaipulu, despite coach Christophe Urios being, well, furious, with the decision, which is being queried by some.
So, basically, rugby saw the continuation of foul play from the first leg, cards abounded, I counted five of the red variety, plus Dan Biggar in the Challenge Cup. Maybe there were more.
While there was some great play, and the excitement of close-run results, it was a shocking advertisement for the game. There has been no improvement in player behaviour, and, surely now, coaches must be held to account, and instructed to get players to adopt different tackling methods, to do things very differently.
And what do we hear from World Rugby in all of this - only that they’d like to see an extension of the 20 minute red card replacement trial, so that they would have more data to see if it would balance player welfare with spectacle.
‘Balance’, indeed. Strewth, how on earth does that reconcile with WR’s stated aim to prioritise safety, an oft repeated message which emanates from headquarters? This writer, for one, has absolutely no idea.