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The Obano red card and four other Premiership final talking points

By Liam Heagney
Bath's Beno Obano heads off the pitch at Twickenham after his red card (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

We’ve got our rugby back. Saturday’s sold-out Gallagher Premiership final was a vibrant celebration of the elite club game at its best just a year after three of the league’s participants – Worcester, Wasps and London Irish – grimly went bust and the showpiece decider featuring Saracens and Sale was played with a quarter of English rugby HQ empty.

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The skills mightn’t have always been fully silky given the high volume of turnovers by Northampton and Bath. But for tension and excitement, there was nowhere better than Twickenham to spend your sunny June afternoon and remind yourself that the domestic product can truly rock.

It’s not yet completely perfect. News from France that the underdog Vannes had just been promoted to the Top 14 for the first time was a sharp reminder that an English top flight that abhors promotion from the Championship is a very awkward look and needs sorting.

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That crib aside, Saturday was a celebration of the best of the English best and the glamour final pairing didn’t disappoint as this was a rollicking encounter that went down to the wire before Northampton were declared 25-21 champions. Here are the RugbyPass talking points:

The Obano red
How ironic that just nine days after RugbyPass sat down in central London talking about 20-minute red cards with World Rugby CEO Alan Gilpin and Omar Hassanein of the International Rugby Players’ Association, the Premiership final had its high-profile red card drama.

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Having had red cards in both recent men’s and women’s Rugby World Cup finals, World Rugby will soon trial 20-minute red cards at the Junior World Championship, the Pacific Nations Cup and at WXV. A sanctioned player won’t be allowed to return but the team down to 14 players will be able to bring on a sub after 20 minutes and restore the contest to 15 on 15.

If that 20-minute regulation was part of the Premiership, we would have likely seen Bath No8 Alfie Barbeary get back on the pitch two minutes into the second half as his team’s 15th man. Instead, he was unfortunately sacrificed on 22 minutes so that Johann van Graan could get a prop on to fill in for the sent-off Beno Obano. Barbeary never returned, leaving Bath to play the game’s remainder a man short.

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We’re not going to discuss the merits of the red that was brandished by referee Christophe Ridley to Obano for clattering a shoulder into the head of Juarno Augustus; we’ll leave that to respective head coaches.

Northampton boss Phil Dowson described it as “a headshot with not a lot of mitigation”, while Bath counterpart van Graan accepted, “Christophe went through the process with the TMO and his assistant referees… we’ll have no issue with the red card decision that was made.”

But this is where it gets complicated. “I don’t believe that is foul play,” added van Graan when answering a follow-up question at his post-game media briefing. “I believe that is a collision between two extremely powerful rugby players, a ball carrier and a tackler.”

This harks back to the point voiced nine days earlier by players’ boss Hassanein. “We need to distinguish between what may be an accident, a tackle that happens at high speed, and a malicious tackle that is done with intent,” he highlighted. “We’re finding that the statistics would show that the large, large majority of tackles fall into the former category.”

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The conversation is should Obano’s tackle be classed as a high-speed accident in that former category?

What isn’t up for debate is the fact that Bath’s attitude was wonderful in ensuring that 14 vs 15 for the guts on an hour didn’t become an excuse to ruin the spectacle. Their comeback from 12 points down to lead by three coming down the finishing straight was heroic and they deserve every bit of praise that they get.

Suber sub Hendy
What is it about sport and ginger-haired supers subs? Football fans will of course know about the exploits of David Fairclough, who used to get thrown into the fray off the Liverpool bench more than 40 years ago when they were badly stuck for a goal. Like the postman, he always delivered.

Rugby now has its Fairclough in the guise of Northampton’s 21-year-old George Hendy. In early April, he arrived into the action against Munster at Franklin’s Gardens and scored two tries to win an Investec Champions Cup round of 16 tie, but he inked himself in Saints history with what unfolded at Twickenham on Saturday.

It was a shot to Burger Odendaal’s knee by the double-team of Sam Underhill and Finn Russell early in the second half that saw Hendy rushed into the game, coming onto the wing with Tommy Freeman switching into midfield.

What initially happened would have crushed multiple youngsters, Hendy unable to snuff out the penalty advantage crosskick floated by Ben Spencer which led to their game-levelling try from Will Muir. What character he showed to bounce back, culminating in his supreme 73rd-minute run to tee up Alex Mitchell for the trophy-taking converted try.

Unlike the TV, which was filming from the dressing room tunnel stand, the writers’ area at Twickenham was in the stand alongside where Hendy took off from literally one step inside the Bath half from a George Furbank pass and you could feel his punch through the contact that skittled Ollie Lawrence, Muir and Matt Gallagher, leaving them all hitting the deck.

He could have given a pass to his right on the 22 that would have allowed a straight run in, but Hendy instead came inside and produced the perfect offload from the tackle when caught by Josh Bayliss. That was composure and class all in one and the rest is history, Mitchell stepping his way to the line and Furbank converting.

“He has done it a few times this season, come off the bench and had an impact,” reflected his boss Dowson. “I have said it before, a freak of an athlete. Very, very fast. Powerful. Seems to get through contact and he did again today. It’s great having that game-changing ability to come on, particularly if somebody is so young and so fresh. Fearless really.”

He was and it didn’t end there as it was a Hendy rip on Orlando Bailey two and a half minutes into additional time that nuked Bath’s final chance and ended the game.

Shirtless Courts
“Shoe army” was the deafening chant that was filling the air when RugbyPass was exiting Twickenham around 7pm, with jubilant Northampton fans congregated by the team buses parked outside the players’ entrance. It was only natural that their trophy win was still being as giddily celebrated as it was when the full-time whistle sounded more than two hours previously. After all, it had been a 10-year wait between titles.

Less conventional than this explosion of fan joy was the bizarre sight of Courtney Lawes shirtless and with ski glasses on his head at his team’s post-match media briefing, which also took place without the trophy making an appearance as it so often does at these set-piece events.

The missing No6 jersey? “Don’t know at the minute, it’s probably flipping on the floor somewhere. It’s pretty messy in there,” he said, referencing the bedlam in the Saints dressing room.

And the goggles? “I don’t want to get anything in my eye. Alcohol and that. Safety first,” he chuckled, and why not? He has a money-spinning future sorted at Brive in France following 17 years at Northampton and no celebratory gaff was going to accidentally become an issue.

The 35-year-old may be off across the Channel, back to France where he called time on his stellar England career last October after they were squeezed out at the last minute by that monster Handre Pollard penalty kick for South Africa off a scrum infringement.

However, the international rugby fire still burns bright even though his move away from the Prem to Pro D2 means he can’t come out of retirement for England if he wanted. But Andy Farrell’s British and Irish Lions tour next year to Australia is in his sights even though it would be unprecedented for someone playing the French second tier to gain selection.

“I don’t think it’s any secret, I’d love to be involved in another Lions tour,” he outlined. “It’s not the same. The reason why I retired from international rugby was I didn’t want to be away for months on end whereas the Lions is two months, I can bring my family out and have a good time. Having said that, I’m not expecting it but if I do get the opportunity I’ll be there,”

You can’t but admire his ambition, and also his honesty. A man extra for an hour, Northampton should have won the final without needing a get-out-of-jail late try.

“I couldn’t believe we had won it because we tried so hard to lose it, so at the end of the game I was actually pretty p***ed off, and then slowly it’s kind of settled in,” he began, later adding, “In that game, I was like what do I need to do to get this game over the line?

“And then you actually end it and you’re like, ‘Did we do it? Did we f***in win?’ It takes a while for you to be like, ‘Yeah we did, we got the trophy’.”

Thomas the Tank
Beaten Bath had so many firefighters in their ranks. Textbook tackler Underhill was one. “The way that he hit, the way that he carried, he was one of the best opensides in world rugby today and you need special players in your group,” chirped van Graan.

Spencer was another. “Ben has become one of the best players I have coached. I have been fortunate to coach some very good nines in my time, Fourie du Preez, Conor Murray, and now Ben Spencer. Firstly, the way that he exit kicks off both feet, the way that he can sum up a game. That kick to Will Muir, to make the decision, that’s not something you can coach. That comes with somebody special.”

But it’s the contribution of the lesser-sung Thomas du Toit we want to shine a light on. His previous appearance at Twickenham had been a nightmare as he was sent off for a high shot on Luke Cowan-Dickie after less than 15 minutes for the Springboks as a November 2022 sub.

On Saturday, the tighthead inspiringly stuck around for the full 80, even scoring the try that ignited the Bath comeback. “For Thomas du Toit to play for 80 minutes, going from tighthead to loosehead, everybody in the group can’t be prouder.”

Incredibly, his pick-and-go score was his 12th try in 24 league and cup appearances in his first season at Bath. That’s a lekker strike rate for a prop.

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Jet-lagged Boydy
If you had missed the match and only arrived at Twickenham for Dowson’s media briefing, you would have been left with the impression that Northampton had been beaten in the final and not victorious.

He’s never the most excitable of characters but the exultation normally associated with Prem title-winning coaches wasn’t evident, which was perhaps a reflection of how relieved the Saints were to win as they struggled for long periods to make use of their one-man advantage.

“Down to 14 men, it galvanised them,” he said of Bath. “They went hard at the breakdown, put us under tons of pressure and we couldn’t get any flow.” How right.

“We could have attacked it better but the problem was we couldn’t get the ball at the breakdown… We maybe weren’t as clinical as we would like to be in terms of taking advantage of that (space) and fundamentally Sam Underhill and others caused a nuisance at the breakdown. I haven’t seen the turnover stats but I imagine they are pretty ugly.”

They were. Fourteen turnovers they gave up but they were in good company as Bath were credited with 15.

On a happier note, it was revealed that Chris Boyd, the Kiwi who initiated the Saints overhaul that included taking Dowson under his wing and nurturing him as director of rugby material, had flown in for the match from New Zealand.

“Landed on Thursday, pretty jet-lagged, spent the evening with Sam Vesty, watched a D-Day documentary. Friday, he came into the office before the bus left. We had a bit of craic, a bit of a catch-up, talked about rugby and then today he was sat in the expensive seats with the rest of the alickadoos, with the chairman, the owner and all that sort of stuff.

“He set the foundations of this group. His remit was to get the club back on track and get the academy going and bring those players through like George Furbank, Alex Mitchell, Fraser Dingwall, Alex Moon, all those guys who have played a lot of games now.

“He was the person in charge of putting those boys in and likewise the coaching group. Learned a huge amount in that period he was here and in the last couple of years we would speak to him now and again, pick his brain for ideas. He has been a huge mentor for me personally and the coaching group in general.”

Well said.

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2 Comments
J
Jon 15 days ago

Barbeary never returned
Probably a tactical blunder. He’s allowed to return after being tactically subbed right? Normally your loosie makeup and bench would be designed to utilize a fresh Barbeary again later on.
It’s good that the crowds are slowly returning. I think even last year the finances would have a better outlook but the fans comin back will insure the league survives. I think have separate tiers is good for the game, for the teams who want to be competitive, but stay true to a lot of rugbys values in the Championship. The Premiership won’t need to relegate anyone for a good couple of decades now, they can just have a very thorough frmework of criteria for adding teams.

J
John 16 days ago

We’ve been very lucky this season - quality finals in the EPL and Investec Cup and a belter of a RWC…

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Mzilikazi 25 minutes ago
Is Ireland versus South Africa a battle for the title of ‘world champions’?

Very good article, Nic, and I find agreement with what you write virtually 100%. I think this two mach series has increasingly become one which will be very difficult for Ireland to win. After the first game of the last 6N, I would have been very full of confidence taking on the Boks in SA. France beaten by a big margin in France, it looked as if Ireland had emerged in fine form from the World Cup, despite the very narrow loss to the AB’s. But after that game, a slide began, ending with the defeat to England. Ireland were very fortunate to win this years 6N ! And as you so fully expose, this has not been a good season for Leinster, or indeed, in my view, for any Irish province. The Leinster loos to the Bulls, and then Munster letting a glorious chance slip to the Glasgow Warriors down at Thomond. Man, that one will really hurt. And both Connacht and Ulster have at times looked very poor this seaso, bith heavily beaten on occassion. The loss of both Gibson Park and Keenan are huge blows, especially Gibson Park. And there is really only one clear class 10 in the touring party, Jack Crowley, and he is still a very young player learning his trade. If he goes down, heaven help Ireland. And in my view, Ireland do not have a good scrummaging front row, SA do, and in great depth too. But despite all this doom and gloom, I always believe my team can win. Not that they will win, just can ! Ireland will still field what is the best and most talented team overall that I have seen in my lifetime. But the coaching group will really have to step up, no awful decisions like the one made against the AB’s in the QF….keeping the totally spent and poorly performing(on the day) Sexton on for the full 80mins, leaving Crowley on the sidelines. Ireland should never have lost that game !

48 Go to comments
S
Shaylen 3 hours ago
Is Ireland versus South Africa a battle for the title of ‘world champions’?

Ireland have all the tools required to hurt SA. They develop quick ball, hold onto the ball for long periods, stretch the game when its on, have powerful mobile forwards, a good kicking game and they can hold their own in the scrum. They also can force turnovers regularly and in general do well at the breakdown. When Munster, the Ospreys and Glasgow all won games in SA this year against the Bulls and Stormers they did just that and won. It is also the reason why Ireland won the game at the world cup last year. The problem for Ireland is that SA have all the tools required to hurt them as well and hurt them a great deal more than England did in the Six Nations. They are physical and powerful at the set piece, they rush up and counter the Irish attacking system and they can really attack the breakdown and slow your ball down. Their counterattacking threat is also a big weapon and they score many tries from turnover turning defence into offence in a second. Toulouse and the Bulls nailed Leinster in this way and Glasgow did the same thing to Munster. So the series will be really interesting because both sides are so good at countering each other. Interested to see what kind of surprises Tony Brown springs and how the SA game develops. Feel like SA have more potential to surprise Ireland but then a new coaching set up as well as the fact that Japanese and foreign based players tend to take about 5 to 6 weeks to get up to speed might work in Irelands favour. SA have shipped at least one game in 4 of the last 5 June/July test windows going back to 2018 for this exact reason.

48 Go to comments
F
Flankly 4 hours ago
'Let them keep talking' - Mike Catt claps back over Bok remarks

The comments were reported weirdly. De Allende did say it would be war, but he said it amidst comments like “Ireland play such good footy”, and “they are so good at the breakdown”. He said that the Boks lost heavily to Ireland a few years back and that they felt the Irish press was dismissive of the Boks. I don’t recall that, but I suppose it is true, and that SA players would want to turn around that sentiment. The RWC loss to Ireland would naturally pour fuel on the fire. In short, it is a natural thing for passionate players like him to feel very strongly about the goal of registering a convincing series win against Ireland. There is really nothing to see here. As an aside, the SA team shouldn’t be too self-righteous about this kind of a situation. Recall that in 2004, after SA won the Ireland series in SA, Jake White noted that no more than two Irish players were good enough for selection in his Bok side. "Considering the facts, I think only two of their players would be included in the Bok team - O'Driscoll (centre) and maybe one of the locks. How could we have lost against the Irish?" O’Driscoll disagreed and said that it was close, and Ireland were just tired. My Irish friends were pretty incensed by the comments, quite rightly. And I am sure it was part of the energy that drove them to some famous wins against the Boks. The Etzebeth thing was a little different. I think he was just not hearing what was being said. It is not that unusual for someone to say “We will see you in the final”. Of course it is a statement of confidence, which every team should have, but it is also a compliment. I think there was a cultural fly-by, in which a “see you soon” comment was taken to mean “we will beat you again”. But it was a good story, and a convenient clickbaity headline. I don’t think anyone is intentionally trying to rile up anything. But if you interview a Bok player and prod them about their passion wrt the Ireland tour, you are likely to hear some pretty heartfelt words. And so you should.

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T
Turlough 5 hours ago
Are Ireland and Leinster the biggest chokers in world rugby?

Obviously there is a series coming up between SA and Ireland…… Ireland won the six nations (again) went unbeaten for almost 20 games til last Autumn beating all the top world teams twice. Held our nerve to beat NZ in a home NZ series. The RWC draw meant that we had to play a title contender in the Quarter that was a 50:50 and the schedule meant that we had to play a top 5 team 7 days before that quarter against a team who were lining us up all tournament and all year. Maybe Ireland should have focussed more on NZ at the expense of the preparation for the Scottish match? Who knows but thats a coaching issue, I saw no mental frailty during that match. As it happenned NZ were clearly better and got through. France have also been eliminated in the quarters last two world cups (including their home match). They have been solidly beaten by Ireland two years in a row. Where are the jibes there? If Ireland have an issue at the end of games it is game management. Against Toulouse, they aimlessly played on with a scrum advantage and then missed the drop. Leinster’s scrum was completely dominant so a scrum was likely worth a penaltyto win the game off the tee. No penalty, then set of the drop goal attemp then. That was missing, that’s end game management. NZ were getting there with this in 2011 but the Semi Victory over SA in 2015 was a victory of game management. Ireland will address it (hopefully very soon). I like the way the Irish team are staying so quiet. These jibes from SA players and pundits no doubt fueling that quiet energy. Underdog status suits Ireland perfectly. Ireland may not win, but expect a major performance in Loftus.

17 Go to comments
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