French resentment must be addressed

Controversial refereeing upsets Stade Francais as Munster burn brightly and Toulouse sweep aside outclassed All Whites
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The Independent Online

One of these fine days, the supremely disciplined and exquisitely gifted rugby craftsmen of Stade Français might see the funny side of their visit to Welford Road; indeed, the day in question may dawn as early as the first full week of January, when they are scheduled to welcome Leicester to their slaughterhouse of a ground in south-west Paris and will fancy their chances of giving the English champions what is generally known as a right good seeing-to. During the interim, though, they will reflect bitterly on a match in which the words "daylight" and "robbery" sprang irresistibly to mind. Injustice? It was the 15-a-side version of Sacco and Vanzetti.

One of these fine days, the supremely disciplined and exquisitely gifted rugby craftsmen of Stade Français might see the funny side of their visit to Welford Road; indeed, the day in question may dawn as early as the first full week of January, when they are scheduled to welcome Leicester to their slaughterhouse of a ground in south-west Paris and will fancy their chances of giving the English champions what is generally known as a right good seeing-to. During the interim, though, they will reflect bitterly on a match in which the words "daylight" and "robbery" sprang irresistibly to mind. Injustice? It was the 15-a-side version of Sacco and Vanzetti.

A Heineken Cup epic on this scale ­ and, to be sure, it was a classic of its kind ­ should have been the most uplifting of Saturday afternoon experiences, an irrefutable argument in favour of professional club rugby. Instead, it left as its legacy a hollow feeling in the pit of the stomach. Imagine watching a vintage western in which the good guys get shot, or travelling all the way to La Scala to hear Pavarotti miss his top Cs. Not quite right, eh? Now imagine how Bernard Laporte, Diego Dominguez and their Stade Français colleagues must feel, having been beaten by three yellow-shirted officials rather than 15 Tiger-striped Midlanders. That wasn't quite right, either.

"I just don't know what else to say to my club-mates," said an exasperated, almost tearful Richard Pool-Jones, the former England flanker who continues to hold down his position in the Stade Français back row in the face of some very serious opposition. "I tell them that they must keep their heads, that they must not react to decisions they know are wrong. I tell them that even though they will concede penalties that are not penalties, that they will be pulled up for forward passes that are not forward, they must not go crazy. And they don't. There are a lot of bright guys in this team and they play the right way. But the big calls still go against us and I'm running out of explanations. Why does it always have to be like this?"

Perhaps Mr Clayton Thomas of Neath would care to venture an opinion; after all, it was he who whistled the living daylights out of the Frenchmen by awarding the vast majority of marginal decisions to Leicester. Let us begin at the beginning. At the behest of his flag-waving sidekick, he denied Thomas Lombard a perfectly legitimate first-half try by ruling the scoring pass from Christophe Juillet out of court (the television footage underlined a great rugby truth: that in the land of the blind touch-judge, the one-eyed ref will always be king).

He also awarded two crucial late penalties against an entirely dominant Stade Français front row, the second of which Tim Stimpson converted to take his side five points clear and leave the Parisians in need of a try. And to cap it all, he blew for time just as Christophe Laussucq was preparing to launch his backs from a maul smack on the Tigers' line. "Not used," pronounced Thomas, confident in his opinion that there was no momentum left in the final passage of play, even though the ball had been cleanly won and was sitting there like a poached egg, just waiting to be served up to Lombard or Christophe Dominici in acres of space in midfield.

Quite a contribution from the wee Welshman, you will agree; far too great a one, you might also acknowledge, from an individual who was there to administer the game, not decide it. And from the French point of view, Thomas is far from alone in his myopia. Less than 24 hours earlier in Pontypridd, the 1999 European Cup finalists from Colomiers had felt so comprehensively undermined by Jim Fleming of Scotland that their frustrations boiled over and threatened to turn Sardis Road into a paddy field of resentful emotion. Their mood was not lightened by the two-year ban perfunctorily slapped on Richard Nones for an alleged gouging offence. In the absence of conclusive video footage ­ or, indeed, video footage of any kind ­ Colomiers will appeal on behalf of their 30-year-old prop.

In short, then, rugby has an issue that badly needs addressing. Four of the five French sides beaten in the opening round of Heineken Cup and European Shield matches were refereed by Welsh officials and as a result, there are now enough conspiracy theorists on the far side of the Channel to staff both MI5 and the CIA. Even the most self-disciplined Tricolore outfits, like Stade Français, are feeling put-upon and slipping into a dark frame of mind. Unless the directors of European Rugby Cup Ltd take the initiative and call a clear-the-air meeting between British referees on the one hand, and the French coaches and captains on the other, they will leave themselves open to another "incident" along the lines of the Brive-Pontypridd conflagration of two seasons ago.

The very fact that Saturday's marvellous contest left such a sour taste should concentrate the minds of the suits, if that makes sense. Leicester could not come close to matching the Stade Français skill levels, but they conceded nothing in terms of commitment or desire or old-fashioned, uncomplicated bravery. They were taken apart at both scrum and line-out, where David Auradou challenged Juillet for the man-of-the-match accolade, but their rookie half-backs, James Grindal and Andy Goode, brought lashings of sang-froid to their side's defensive equation.

And there was ingenuity, too; not much, but enough to put two tries before the Welford Road faithful. Stimpson rode his luck to claim the first ­ one aristocratic little chip and two less cultured kicks ahead enabled him to capitalise on a comical error from Laussucq ­ but there was real quality about Leon Lloyd's strike four minutes into the second half. Pat Howard, on for the injured Will Greenwood, kept a dying move alive by manufacturing the sweetest of back-hand flip passes to Martin Corry and when the ball came right, Austin Healey made the important thrust to send his England World Cup squad colleague gliding over to the left of the posts.

At 24-9 down, most French teams either spontaneously combust or turn up their toes without a murmur of protest. The Parisians did neither. Dominguez hit the spot with three penalties and also converted a bullocking try from Pieter de Villiers, the South African prop who has scrummaged his way into the top echelon of French rugby. For five breathless minutes, Stade Français were a point to the good. But back they came, all three of them: Leicester, Thomas and that damned whistle of his. And as we know, three on to one has never been fair.

Leicester: Tries Stimpson, Lloyd; Conversion Stimpson; Penalties Stimpson 5; Drop goal Goode. Stade Français: Try De Villiers; Conversion Dominguez; Penalties Dominguez 5; Drop goal Dominguez.

Leicester: T Stimpson; A Healey, L Lloyd, W Greenwood (P Howard 40), D Lougheed; A Goode, J Grindal; D Jelley (P Freshwater, 61), D West (R Cockerill, 69), G Rowntree, M Johnson (capt), B Kay (J Welborn, 52), P Gustard, N Back, M Corry.

Stade Français: A Gomes (N Burrows, 40); C Dominici, F Comba, T Lombard, N Raffault; D Dominguez (capt), C Laussucq; S Marconnet, F Landreau, P de Villiers, D Auradou, H Chaffardon, D George (C Moni, 45), R Pool-Jones (M Liÿvremont, 57), C Juillet.

Referee: C Thomas (Wales).

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