May 8, 2012
Scotland's Nathan Hines is hit with a yellow card - something he is no stranger to © Getty Images
Clermont coach Vern Cotter is as pragmatic as the next Kiwi and has a record of success, most notably ending his club's record-breaking sequence of French championship final defeats, to show for it. But in one aspect of the game, he counts as one of the great risk-takers.
It is certainly possible to win a big match even if reduced to 14 men by the sin-binning of a key player for 10 minutes. Ulster proved exactly that by winning their Heineken Cup semi-final against Edinburgh in spite of losing Stefan Terblanche between the 28th and 38th minutes of the match. Their resistance, concluding with a penalty that extended their lead, was one of the key elements in their victory. The impact on an opponent's morale of failing to capitalise can be huge. But there's no doubt playing shorthanded makes any match tougher, and in a tough contest may be the difference between winning and losing.
There was no such misfortune for Clermont to bemoan as a cause of their narrow defeat by Leinster on Sunday. Nevertheless, as ESPNscrum's stats and Statsguru show, it is a risk Cotter took when he picked his starting second row - Nathan Hines and Jamie Cudmore. Not one card-prone player, but two. Each is among top-level rugby's most consistent offenders, the men likeliest to be sat mournfully by the side of the pitch as team-mates desperately try to compensate for their absence.
International rugby union's most sin-binned player remains Schalk Burger. The Springbok flanker has seen yellow six times during his international career - the record brought up three years ago when most observers felt he should have seen another colour for 'making contact with the eye area' of Lions winger Luke Fitzgerald. Yet Schalk might be argued to have cleaned his act up since his hectic early days as a Bok, when he got himself binned five times in his first 19 matches, including consecutive weekends in Cardiff and Dublin. Since then he has walked only once in 49 appearances.
But that does not make him the international game's top miscreant. That title is shared by Hines and that fine Italian lock Marco Bortolami, each of whom has a single red to go with five yellows. Where Hines edges it, is that he has done it in fewer matches - 77 caps, including 51 starts, compared to Bortolami's 93, the vast majority as a starter.
But while Hines holds the record for accumulated offences, it is his Canadian partner at Clermont who counts as the man most likely to offend. A total of 24 players have been binned four times or more. A couple, the combative Argentinian duo of Rodrigo Roncero (5 times in 48 matches) and Juan Manuel Leguizamon (4 in 39) have been marched at a rate of slightly more than once in every 10 appearances.
But neither can get anywhere near Cudmore, who has played 27 times for Canada and seen yellow five times, a rate of once every 5.4 caps. There are admittedly some players with shorter careers who have exceeded that ratio. They include German flanker Kehoma Brenner (3 in 13), Wales lock James Griffiths who was binned while winning his single cap as a replacement and French outside-half Benjamin Boyet who contrived to leave his team-mates a man short twice in five appearances.
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But even alongside them, Cudmore looks like the Donald Bradman of serial offending. Since Australian centre James Holbeck was binned by New Zealander Paddy O'Brien, until very recently the IRB's refereeing chief, during the Wallabies 61-22 tanning by the Boks in Pretoria in August 1997, a total of 949 cards have been issued to 654 different players. During that period 4670 players have appeared in international rugby, winning a total of 63,384 caps. That makes the ratio of cards to caps around 1.5% - so the average player is sin-binned once every 67 appearances. This makes that French winger Christophe Dominici, binned once - the 2003 World Cup semi-final against England - in precisely 67 matches for his country, international rugby's disciplinary Mr Average, just about the only way in which one of the most vivid attackers of recent years could ever be described in such terms.
Cudmore has walked in 18.5% of his international appearances - or 12 times the norm. Nor is his record with Clermont exactly spotless. To the beginning of the current season he was the only player to have been banned three times for his actions in Heineken Cup matches, with two citings and a sending-off (following a memorable set-to with Paul O'Connell against Munster in 2008), earning him a total of 19 weeks on the sidelines. Those three incidents came in the space of 18 Heineken appearances, very close to the rate at which he has offended for Canada.
Yet Vern Cotter goes on picking him for Clermont's biggest matches. Given the frequency with which he leaves his team-mates short-handed and knowing what we do of Cotter's pragmatism, there is only one possible conclusion - that taken all in all, Jamie Cudmore is one hell of a player.
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