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Owen Doyle: Extra-time yellow card for James Lowe was a huge call – and a harsh one

Dupont the difference for Toulouse but for Leinster losing three consecutive Champions Cup finals is the stuff of sporting nightmares

Plus ca change, plus c’est la même chose; the more things change, the more they stay the same.

That old French proverb came to mind as Leinster lost another final – a new senior coach, different opponents, yet the same result. It is an enormous achievement to reach three consecutive finals, but to lose each of them is the stuff of sporting nightmares.

As cruel as the outcome was, the better performance carried the day. But only just, by the finest of margins. The difference was that man again, Antoine Dupont, rugby’s equivalent of Franz Beckenbauer and Maradona, rolled into one utterly unique player.

Englishman Matt Carley was in charge, and in my view his was a mixed performance with too many questions marks appearing on my notes. As things developed, I thought whichever side loses will have a stack of queries for Tony Spreadbury, head of match officials at EPCR.

The extra-time yellow card for James Lowe was a huge call, and also a harsh one. Lowe’s look of complete amazement was completely understandable. Moments later, Toulouse’s Mathis Lebel was scorching over for a vital try.

The scoring pass was questionable but wasn’t checked. If its validity was agreed in a private chat between the referee and TMO Ian Tempest, it needed more. Such a critical moment demanded that the referee was seen to review it and make the call himself. If he then decided that it was okay, fair enough.

Earlier on, Lowe thought he’d nailed a try but Carley ruled it out for an earlier knock-on. But was it that, or did the ball come off Will Connors’ foot? It was very hard to say, but it would have been a lot smarter to allow the score, then review it. It’ll be studied in depth by Leo Cullen before he raises, with EPCR, what might be a very awkward question.

However, the biggest issue, for me, was the breakdown, where the referee’s concentration was on tackled players who failed to release the ball, with the jackler frequently rewarded. He was correct much of the time, but several penalties were severe. Carley can argue that the offence against Caelen Doris, when he momentarily balanced himself using one hand, was correct to the letter of the written word. But it hardly deserved three points to Toulouse.

The French have often referred to the breakdown as La Guerre des Étoiles – Star Wars – and we saw plenty of it. Arriving players appeared to hurtle themselves into the contest with complete abandon. Both teams were at it, off their feet, side entries and sealing-off seemed to be the dish of the day. With everything happening at high pace ferocity, it became difficult to control. A stronger refereeing performance from the outset would have put much-needed structure into this phase.

The match had its ugly moment too, a Richie Arnold clearout rattling the brain of Cian Healy. Carley calmly analysed the replay, and out came the inevitable red card. Otherwise, the tackling was as hard as hell but significantly lower than the dangerous high stuff we often watch – it shows what can be done.

The coaches had a say in things too. When Jacques Nienebar appeared as an Erasmus-like water carrier, it was a poor look, even though he is apparently allowed to do so. That’s because his title is ‘senior’ coach, rather than ‘head’ coach, which is nothing but a ridiculous piece of word game hair-splitting.

Toulouse coach Ugo Mola was also involved, shouting instructions from the technical area. In days of yore, coaches were forbidden from being pitchside and the governing body must decide what it wants here. One day there’ll be a confrontation which will end in tears. We’ve seen it in other sports and rugby can well do without it.

When deciding to hold the most important matches of the club year at Tottenham Hotspur, did nobody in EPCR stop to think to check the dimensions of the pitch? It was hardly fit for purpose and also potentially dangerous. Any player chasing a kick into in-goal would have had very minimal space to dive for it before crashing into the hoardings. And a pass back to in-goal for a clearing kick was a perilous undertaking. Donal Lenihan’s description of the shortness of the area as a “joke” was spot on. EPCR can breathe a mighty sigh of relief that it didn’t influence the outcome, but someone is bound to have their knuckles rapped.

The Challenge Cup final was a complete mismatch. The power unleashed by the Sharks was frightening and Gloucester couldn’t cope. Indeed, would any European team have survived the onslaught? The result qualifies Sharks for next year’s Champions Cup. There are interesting times ahead as the South African teams attempt the domination of Europe.

The man in the middle was our familiar friend Mathieu Raynal. He will retire shortly and can look back on a hugely successful career. But, and this is not at all a criticism of Raynal, it does beg the question should he have been there at all? It was his first European final, and hopefully his appointment wasn’t intended as some sort of going away gift.

But what options were there for the selectors? Not very many actually. The only others with the requisite experience are Nika Amashukeli and Andrew Brace. If next year’s Champions Cup final is between a French club and an English club, it will come down to a choice between those two.

This lower-tier final really was the ideal moment to appoint one of them, but a valuable opportunity to build for the future was not taken. Instead, it was an unnecessary nod to the past.

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