Two red cards, three yellows, 37 penalties officially – 41 if multiple offences in the three sequences of play were tagged on – one free-kick and a king size headache for referee Frank Murphy are the headline details from an officiating perspective in Munster's 49-12 victory over Connacht in last Sunday's Pro 14 match at the Aviva Stadium.
If Murphy had two whistles he still wouldn't have been able to blow for all the infringements during the 90-plus minutes of an elongated encounter. First and foremost it should be stated that the former Munster, Leicester Tigers and Connacht scrumhalf, with the help of the television match official, Olly Hodges, got the major decisions in relation to the cards correct.
The two red cards, for Connacht number eight Abraham Papali'i and hooker Shane Delahunt, were merited according to the letter of the law, while the recipients of the three yellows, Connacht flanker Conor Oliver and Munster duo Peter O'Mahony and Tadhg Beirne were censured as much because of an accumulation of team offences in a short time frame and where transgressions took place on the pitch as the primary offence.
All three yellow cards were for breakdown offences from a total of 21 in that particular facet of play during the 80 minutes ball in play time. The emphasis on trying to clean up that aspect of the game, initially visible in the respective Super Ruby tournaments in New Zealand and Australia, has led to an increase in penalty counts in matches but Sunday’s represented a hefty tally.
There was always going to be a bedding-in period as was evident in the southern hemisphere but based on the two weekends of interprovincial fare, there is still some way to go in terms of player appreciation or recognition of what’s permissible. Players push the boundaries by inclination, match officials have been mandated to push back.
The main tenets of the ‘new’ breakdown are that the tackler must immediately roll away in an east or west direction from the tackle, the ball carrier is allowed one dynamic movement to place the ball, and that a player looking to poach, must come from the direction of his goal-line, not in the side, must be on his feet, be ‘on the ball’ with his hands, not beyond it, and actively looking to lift it clear of the carrier.
Players arriving at a ruck must drive and not dive in an attempt to clear out, while those from the team in possession cannot seal off the ball, by flopping over it. No neck rolls, lifting legs, shoulder charges or contact below the thighs of the ‘jackaler’ and a strict adherence to the offside line are some but not all of the hot items.
A referee has to process all of the above information and more and come to a conclusion in a split second. When teams are technically proficient at the breakdown it makes his job less difficult but both Connacht and Munster were sloppy or wilful at times and ignored direction and best practice.
Five of the first six penalties of the match were breakdown offences, two ‘side entry,’ two ‘not releasing’ and one for ‘off feet,’ which led to Oliver’s yellow card. The eighth and 10th penalties were further breakdown offences, all bar one with Connacht as culprits.
Murphy’s efforts to clean-up that area didn’t work. It seems ludicrous to suggest in a match with five cards, but he needed to brandish more from the get-go until there was reasonable compliance. It never came. Five of the last six penalties in the first half were also awarded at the breakdown, two of which were accompanied by yellow cards in what had become temporarily a 13-a-side game.
By half-time Murphy had awarded 22 penalties, two red and three yellow cards and still the breakdown was riddled with offences. If he continued to officiate in the same vein, there would have been over 50 penalties in the match. Perhaps mindful of that he seemed to soften his approach appreciably.
There's no doubt that offences punished in the first half escaped censure in the second. There was a lack of consistency. Munster flanker Chris Cloete prevented a try by bringing down a driving maul two metres from the line; it should have led to a penalty try and a yellow card. It didn't. There were a further six breakdown penalties – three for not releasing, two for not rolling away and 'off feet' – from a total of 15 in the second half.
One facet of the game contributed 57 per cent of the total penalties with the other 43 per cent made up of eight different infringements: high tackle, late tackle, forearm smash, deliberate knock-on, scrum, lineout, maul and offside offences. It mustn’t continue to be skewed in that manner.
Hopefully the narrative from this weekend’s semi-finals will be about the rugby and there won’t be a continued impasse between the players and match officials when it comes to the breakdown.