What a pity this match will be remembered for the 16th man and not for the 30 who produced such an exhilarating spectacle. But there was no escaping the fact or forgetting the farce that the Ospreys had an extra player – and that they had him for a minute of rearguard action which could have proved crucial to the result and, who knows, even to the destination of the Heineken Cup itself.
That is essentially why Leicester Tigers felt obliged to lodge an official complaint to the Heineken Cup organisers on Saturday night. Yesterday, the Welsh region was still waiting to hear from European Rugby Cup as to what happens next. The unofficial word from the ERC is that the Ospreys will have to attend a hearing but need not worry about docked points and effective expulsion from the quarter-finals. A fine would be the worst of it, yet they may even avoid that.
Plymouth were cleared at a hearing earlier this month for having an extra man for a similar amount of time in a Championship game against Nottingham in October. What is certain is that this result will stand and there is no prospect whatsoever of Leicester taking the Ospreys' place in the last eight.
Not that the Leicester hierarchy had such a scenario in mind. When Peter Tom, the Tigers chairman, and Peter Wheeler, the chief executive, entered the Liberty Stadium press room to express their intention to take the matter further they did not burst in full of vehemence. "We don't want to seem like whingeing, losing bastards," said Tom. "But this is a serious competition and a serious error has been made. We are 12 years or so into the professional game. People who administer the game have to make sure it doesn't happen again."
Wheeler was more pointed, talking about teams who have previously been docked points for fielding ineligible players – "by definition, the 16th man is not qualified to play," he said – but surely the best thing to come out of all this, as Tom said, would be for safeguards to be put in place to ensure no repeat. Rugby union has suffered enough embarrassing controversies recently to let this shambles pass with a quick sweep under the carpet.
First of all the disciplinarians have to deduce exactly what happened. Here's what is clear. Lee Byrne, the Lions full-back, came off the pitch with a blood injury (his foot) in the 69th minute and Sonny Parker replaced him. Byrne came back onto the pitch in the 73rd minute but nobody came off. For a minute Ospreys had the numerical advantage and as Wheeler explained it was an advantage. "Byrne was involved in a break by Ben Youngs being stopped from developing," he said. Wheeler – who spoke to ERC officials after seeing a rerun of the Sky footage immediately following the final whistle – also added: "We think it affected the outcome of the game." But there was no way of knowing that.
Wheeler's statement just added to the confusion. The Ospreys claimed they had done everything by the book, telling the fourth and fifth officials on the line of their intention to reintroduce Byrne. However, a communication breakdown occurred and it is incredible nobody from the Ospreys staff, the officials or even Byrne, did not see the error unfolding. A player comes on, a player goes off. Simple.
When the referee, Alan Lewis, discovered the error he reacted with fury, blaming the Ospreys coordinator. Yet even after that, a mistake was made. Under the rules Lewis should have awarded a penalty to Leicester where he stopped the game and this would have left the visitors a simple penalty to get within two points. There was a suggestion that Lewis chose not to because Ospreys players had informed him the Tigers also had 16 men on the pitch. What a carry-on. Clarity is needed of protocol and punishment. Desperately.
What made the situation all the more bizarre was Richard Cockerill's refusal to allow his passions to run riot. "We were beaten fair and square," said the normally fiery Leicester coach. "I am a lover of the game, and I am sure it was a genuine mistake by somebody."
Instead he was focusing on his team's mistakes, as, for the second time in three years, they failed to make the quarter-final stages. Cockerill would not be human if he did not replay over and over in his mind the Aaron Mauger knock-on in the final minutes as the line beckoned. He went on to say "the luck sometimes goes your way," but, in truth, he realised who had been the better team.
After Tommy Bowe had crossed for the game's only try just before half-time – the great Irish finisher using all of his predatory skills to touch down James Hook's clever kick – the Tigers were up against the scoreboard and an inspired pack. Marty Holah, the openside, was everywhere, while his fellow back-rowers, Jerry Collins and Ryan Jones were similarly destructive.
In behind, Byrne did not put a foot wrong and Hook looked ever more comfortable at inside centre. Little wonder Ryan Jones felt bold enough to declare: " We fear no one." Leicester have long been their bogey team in this tournament and there was a palpable sense of a rubicon being crossed. They are the only Welsh region left in the Heineken Cup and if they can prevail in Biarritz they are not without chances of at last bringing the trophy back to their country. "The Ospreys are a quality side," Cockerill said. "They've got quality throughout the side and off the bench. They've got the personnel to progress and win the tournament." Somehow he managed to resist adding: "With 16 men how can they fail?"
Ospreys: Try Bowe; Penalties Biggar 3; Drop goal Biggar. Leicester Tigers: Penalties Flood 3; Drop goal Staunton.
Ospreys: L Byrne (S Parker, 67); T Bowe, A Bishop, J Hook, S Williams (N Walker, 79); D Biggar (Byrne, 73), R Januarie; P James, R Hibbard (E Shirvington, 76), A Jones, A W Jones, J Thomas (I Gough, 67), J Collins (F Tiatia, 76), R Jones (capt), M Holah.
Leicester Tigers: S Hamilton; J Murphy (A Tuilagi, 55), D Hipkiss, J Staunton (A Mauger, 67), L Tuqiri; T Flood, B Youngs; M Ayerza (B Stankovich, 79), M Davies (G Chuter, 68), D Cole (M Castrogiovanni, 53), L Deacon (capt), G Parling, C Newby (B Kay, 61), J Crane, L Moody.
Referee: A Lewis (Ireland).
Cup draws: Last eight ties
*Heineken Cup quarter-finals
Munster v Northampton
Biarritz v Ospreys
Toulouse v Stade Francais
Leinster v Clermont Auvergne
Ties to be played 9-11 April
Toulouse/Stade Francais v Leinster/Clermont Auvergne
Biarritz/Ospreys v Munster/Northampton
Ties to be played 1-2 May
*Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-finals
Connacht v Bourgoin, Toulon v Scarlets, Wasps v Gloucester, Newcastle v Cardiff Blues
Ties to be played 9-11 AprilReuse content