Dean Richards was right. Whatever the continuing rumblings over his approach to player management during Sunday's compelling Heineken Cup quarter-final contest with Leinster, the Harlequins director of rugby was perfectly entitled, under Exception 1 of Law 3.12 no less, to send his best player, the All Black outside-half Nick Evans, back on to the field for the final few minutes as a "blood replacement" for Tom Williams, who suddenly started spouting claret in amounts generally associated with victims of Rocky Marciano.
Another thing. While the Leinster management complained bitterly that they were not granted an opportunity to inspect Williams' wound – clearly, they suspected some dark work afoot in the Quins ranks – the match officials were under no obligation to facilitate such an examination. There was nothing for the Irishmen to do but wait for the inevitable drop-goal shot from Evans and pray heaven that he missed it. Which he did, thereby ensuring that the Dubliners, not the Londoners, will play a semi-final against Munster in front of a vast audience at Croke Park next month.
And yet. The reintroduction of Evans for the last knockings alarmed so many of those watching, not least the wider refereeing community in Britian and Ireland, that the incident may yet have ramifications – for the law-makers, if not for Quins. Indeed, there may yet be an official complaint from Leinster to the European Rugby Cup board. Like many others who witnessed events at the weekend, the province's management would like some clarification and, in due course, a tightening up of the regulations.
Evans' return was deemed legitimate because when he was withdrawn after 47 minutes, Richards declared to touch-line officials that the New Zealander had been tactically substituted, rather than been replaced for injury reasons. He knew full well that under the now notorious Exception 1, a substituted player is permitted to return to the field for blood reasons, while a replaced player is not. This is what Richards meant when, after the game, he was heard to say: "You have to know your rules."
That the rules took no account of the fact that Evans struggled to make the game in the first place because of a knee problem, or that he played swathed in more bandages than Tutankhamun, or that he spent the first half hobbling so badly that he could barely run and spent much of his time on the sideline whirring away on an exercise bike, presumably in an effort to stop his knee seizing up completely, was not Quins' problem. If the law is an ass, there will always be someone to kick it.
All this may yet come back to haunt Quins, even so. They expect Evans to be incapacitated for at least two weeks, possibly three. Chris Malone, who twanged a hamstring during his time on the pitch against Leinster, is also struggling, and with two important Premiership matches looming – the first of them a tough visit to Sale on Friday – Richards will have to find himself a goalkicker if he is to plot a route into the end-of-season play-offs.
Leinster, meanwhile, are bruised but buoyant. Their all-Irish semi with Munster on 2 May is expected to draw a capacity 82,500 crowd to Croke Park – an increase of 900 on the Twickenham attendance for last season's Premiership final between Wasps and Leicester, which set a new world record for a club match. Some 5,000 tickets were purchased in the space of half an hour on Sunday night.Reuse content