Tuilagi storm requires perspective
May 18, 2011
Manu Tuilagi has come in for harsh criticism © Getty Images
Last weekend's gritty, absorbing Aviva Premiership semi-finals have been lost to sight in the media storm generated by Manu Tuilagi's moment of madness against Northampton, and that is a real shame.
For the record, they were horrible punches and he absolutely deserves any ban. The Leicester centre lost his head and as punishment he will miss the final, England's Barbarians meeting and also the start of the Churchill Cup with the Saxons. He will be back in time for England's Rugby World Cup preparations and I believe he should go based on his form to date this season.
After the event, there was a fair bit of rubbish spouted in the media, beginning with those who deemed Tuilagi to have also been guilty of a dangerous tackle on Ashton before their ill-fated altercation. He was diving to one side, he used his bicep and the only problem was that the ball didn't get to Ashton as Martin Castrogiovanni intercepted and knocked it down. It was the right decision to make the tackle and in another world, we could have seen him go the length for a try.
Certain commentators also voiced the view that Ashton was perfectly within his rights to go and push Tuilagi. No, he wasn't - although I can understand it. Tuilagi's reaction was totally wrong, but he's a young lad who will learn from it. He should have got a red card, but to say that it is the most disgraceful thing seen on a rugby pitch is a little rich.
Four weeks ago we saw Olivier Azam deliver a flying headbutt to the side of an opponent's skull and there was not a huge fuss made about it. Rightly, so he got a four week ban, but there needs to be a little more perspective.
In both semi-finals the officials were at fault, notably assistant referee Robin Goodliffe, whose failure to advise Wayne Barnes correctly led to the sin-binning of Tuilagi and Ashton. It's difficult on those guys. I also had a pop at the assistant in the second semi-final for the sin-binning of Steve Borthwick. It clearly was not a yellow-card offence but they have to make a snap decision. Perhaps the officials need to work harder as a team to define what they are looking for. Rather than everyone following the ball they should be sure to have the facts and not react to what they think they've seen.
Another man in the firing line after the weekend was Leicester boss Richard Cockerill, who was accused of all manner of crimes in connection with referees' manager Brian Campsall. He also took a lot of flak for his handling of the Tuilagi situation after the game, but in reality he was just putting up a protective barrier until he'd had time to think about his response.
In all honesty, there are times where he goes over the top while sat in the stands. He's a passionate man. I can't comment on the exact nature of the complaints made against him last weekend as I was on the other side of the field, but I spoke to RFU referees' chief Ed Morrison following the Sarries game and he had been told by Campsall that Cockerill had not spoken to him. As far as he was concerned, there was none of the 'disgraceful' behaviour that made the papers.
Having said that, there's no smoke without fire. If you are in a public place, you have to restrain yourself. Sometimes passion overtakes Cockerill, but I've been really impressed with his work at the Tigers. He has reinvigorated the 'Leicester brand', the work-ethic and the honesty around the place. His ability to control himself is perhaps the only concern moving forwards.
Leicester's conquered foes are now gearing up for the big one, Saturday's Heineken Cup final against Leinster at the Millennium Stadium. It's vitally important that the Saints can pick themselves up after the physicality of last weekend's game - and I'm not just talking about the punches.
The fact that Brian O'Driscoll is a doubt for the Irish side will give Northampton a huge lift. I've been a big fan of theirs this year, they've been outstanding, but the area where they are the weakest is in midfield. They have good quality club players in Stephen Myler, James Downey and Jon Clarke, but they cannot boast international class between 10 and 13. If you look at Leinster's combination, Jonathan Sexton, Gordon D'Arcy and O'Driscoll, that is an area of supremacy - unless the great man fails to make the cut.
The Saints have lost a talisman of their own in flanker Tom Wood, but the Saints should still have the goods to make it a hell of a battle in the back-row. I played with Leinster's Shane Jennings when he was at Leicester, he's one of the best opensides I played with and I played with some pretty good ones. No.8 Jamie Heaslip is magnificent and playing well but Roger Wilson, the big Ulsterman up against the Leinster boys, will make his life difficult. On paper the Irish have a slight edge but they will have to perform at top level.
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Ben Kay is a co-commentator for ESPN
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