O'Connell free to make Six Nations comeback

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The Independent Online

The reigning Lions captain Paul O'Connell last played a game of international rugby in Ireland's final match of this year's Six Nations Championship. Yesterday, the Irish lock's chances of appearing in the opening game of the 2011 tournament improved dramatically, despite failing to convince a Heineken Cup disciplinary officer that his sending off last weekend amounted to a miscarriage of sporting justice.

Judge Jeff Blackett, the leading rugby disciplinarian in England, banned O'Connell for four weeks after upholding the red card shown him during the match between Munster and Ospreys in Limerick. Had the judge taken a really dim view of the 31-year-old forward's swinging-arm assault on the Wales international back-rower Jonathan Thomas, O'Connell might easily have missed the start of the Six Nations in February. In the event, he can resume playing on 10 January.

Making his first senior appearance for Munster since breaking down with a groin injury eight months ago, O'Connell reacted to a tug on his shirt by catching Thomas full in the face with his arm. The French referee Christophe Berdos banished him instantly, bringing the Irishman's comeback to an end after a mere 11 minutes.

Television footage confirmed that far from aiming a deliberate retaliatory blow at his victim's head, O'Connell swung blindly. This, together with a good disciplinary record over a top-level career stretching back almost a decade, persuaded Blackett to take a lenient view. Happily, Thomas escaped unharmed. Equally happily, he agreed a new contract with Ospreys yesterday and will remain with the Swansea-based regional side until the summer of 2014.

The Saracens director of rugby, Brendan Venter, has promised to revisit his approach to television interviews following the bizarre events in the aftermath of his side's Heineken Cup defeat by the Parisian club Racing Metro last weekend. Venter's reaction to that loss – a monosyllabic, repetitive, dirge-like response that might have fitted neatly into One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest – was either a brilliantly ironic commentary on the tin-pot authoritarianism of the tournament's administrators or a sorry piece of post-match posturing.

Explaining that he had based his stunt on the football-inspired satirical movie Mike Bassett: England Manager, the South African said: "Everybody sees it for what it was, which was a joke. It wasn't meant to offend anybody, although maybe it was a bit of passive resistance in a way. I do respect the rugby authorities and I wouldn't want to offend them deliberately, so I definitely wouldn't do it again."

European Rugby Cup officials fined Venter almost £22,000 last month following his criticism of the way Berdos – yes, him again – refereed the Saracens-Leinster game at Wembley in October. Although more than half of the fine was suspended, the club were bitterly annoyed and sanctioned Venter's decision to isolate himself from the media. "If he can't speak the truth, he'd rather not speak at all," said one insider at the time.

"Look, I have a mischievous streak in me, but that's because life is a privilege to live," Venter said yesterday. "There are a lot more serious things out there than rugby."

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