Rugby Union: Victims as much as villains

Jonathan Davies argues that not all the blame should be laid at the players' door
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The Independent Online
One of the many blows struck in the Parc Municipal des Sports in Brive last Sunday was for freedom from French intimidation in the Heineken European Cup. At least, I hope that's the long-term outcome of the troubles which have brought rugby union so much shaming publicity.

The punch-ups have jerked some action from European officials who previously seemed to ignore a problem that every team to visit France has been facing in this competition. French clubs play a mean and nasty game when they are on their own pitch and it takes brave opponents and an even braver referee to stand up to them.

It was a situation that could not be allowed to continue and one day the game may look back gratefully at Pontypridd's experience as the turning point. I don't know how much consolation that will be to Ponty, who have been condemned as the villains. It'll be a while before they see the funny side.

Not the least sad thing about the affair is that the brawls took all the attention away from the fact that this was a fantastic game of rugby and that Ponty produced a performance that I would class as the best ever by a Welsh club in France.

This doesn't excuse anything that went on but it might help to explain the frustrations of the night. Whatever punishment the European Rugby Cup dish out to Pontypridd it will not compare with the pain of losing a vital match they should have won and would have won but for the duress that they and the referee were put under.

Tomorrow the two clubs will hear what punishment they face for the on- pitch battle that took place in the first half. It was far from the worst brawl I've seen, or taken part in, and in my opinion it would not have been taken any further had the bar fracas not happened later.

The mistaken impression is that the Pontypridd contingent were out for revenge during the evening. Considering what had gone on, there was a very happy atmosphere around the town. I was in a bar only 50 yards from the one where the trouble broke out, having a few beers with the Pontypridd coach Dennis John and a few BBC colleagues. Several French fans came up to say hello and the Brive No 8, Francois Duboisset, joined us for a while. What followed was as big a surprise to us as to anyone. Rumour has it that Ponty will be forced to play their home tie against Brive next weekend at Newcastle's ground. This will cost them much revenue, but I fancy they'll win and that will bring them great satisfaction.

I am pleased that the ERC are warning all countries about their conduct and that they'll be keeping a closer eye on the French, whose skulduggery can hardly be a shock to them.

I played over there for Neath 12 years or so ago and the same intimidation was applied then. Even when they're playing each other, the away team in France rarely overcomes the threatening atmosphere unless they are determined not to be bullied.

Pontypridd decided to stand up for themselves and, until officialdom clamps down, it is the only chance a visiting team has. But, even then, you need the support of the referee. Last week, I spoke about big match referees needing all the help they can get and here was a perfect example. Ed Murray of Scotland refereed well early on and I have no complaints about the sendings off but he allowed two late Brive tries that should never have been.

In the first, Philippe Carbonneau clearly head-butted Stuart Roy in a ruck that led to Pascal Bomati scoring in the corner. The touch-judge drew Murray's attention to the offence but he took no action. And in the final minute he blew for the winning try as a Brive maul collapsed over the line. He was in no position to make such a vital decision and an in- goal judge or video evidence would have taken the pressure off him.

I thought Pontypridd were robbed by two poor decisions made in an overpowering atmosphere. I found that more upsetting than the violence.