Flying out of Ireland in the second half of December and bound for the city of Clermont-Ferrand in the Massif Central of France, the Munster rugby team and support staff knew they faced a formidable task on the field a few hours later.
The team they would be facing ASM Clermont Auvergne, who have always been a class outfit.
As always, ASM would field players of high calibre, including the likes of hardened French internationals Camille Lopez, Paul Jedrasiak, Rabah Slimani and Morgan Parra, with 71 caps for France and 307 appearances for ASM, scoring to date 1303 points.
Then there were the overseas-born players, such as Fijians Peni Ravai, Peceli Yato and the naturalised Alivereti Raka, Kotaro Matsushima of Japan and lone New Zealander George Moala.
No mean team themselves, Munster came to this game with some good form in the past weeks but not at full strength. Young flyhalf Ben Daley had been foolish enough not to defend himself properly against two big Harlequin forwards the week before, and giant Springboks lock Rudolph Snyman has played only minutes for the men in red since arriving from South Africa.
They did have the local hero Peter O’Mahony – I think he was born a hero; Damian de Allende, also a much loved Springbok; Christiaan Stander, mistakenly not loved enough to be a Springbok but much loved now in Munster and even in all Ireland; and Fineen Wycherley, who thoughtfully brought along his young brother Josh, who was to start the game at loosehead prop.
This article is not primarily about this game but rather about two scrum events. For any reader who is unaware of what happened down at Clermont-Ferrand that day, the home side looked to be inflicting a crushing defeat, leading 28-9 with only 25 minutes of the game played. But ASM were unlucky enough to be playing Munster.
It ended in tears for the ASM lads. It’s a game worth watching if you have not yet seen it.
It’s a good job there was no crowd present. There would have been riots in the streets after the final whistle. I seem to remember Harry Jones talking about watching an ASM game a couple of years ago and mentioning the crowd being caged in. Street riots would be the only option to vent their feelings, I suppose.
To the two scrum events, two star performers featured: Rabah Slimani, a 31-year-old with 57 French caps built like a Limousine bull at 119 kilograms, and the stripling Josh Wycherley, who was only 21 years of age and built more like a finer-boned and much lighter Dexter Bull at 105 kilos but with no Irish caps and earning his first senior Munster start.
The first scrum is set 12 minutes into the game, Clermont feed. The referee is England’s Matthew Carley.
The first attempt fails, with the Clermont hooker lifting his right arm on the set and he and his props standing up. Munster had closed early, so fair enough. Carley could have penalised the Irish team.
To the second set and the ball was fed, but the scrum went down, with Clermont at risk of being penalised.
The third set is called. Slimani gets right in under Wycherley and the younger man is in real trouble instantly, with his back arching upwards. The ball is still in the hands of Clermont scrumhalf Sebastion Bezy, so there should by law be no pressure applied by either side. Carley should now blow his whistle and penalise Slimani.
He does not. The ball is fed and Slimani lifts Wycherley high in the air, ending up standing close to upright. Wycherley is now trapped, head and neck bent so that his chin must be on his chest. He now is unlikely to be able to breathe properly.
The powerful shove from the Munster scrum, especially from his second-rower Tadig Byrne and flanker Peter O’Mahony, is compounding his problems. This has become a very dangerous situation for the young loosehead prop, with a high risk of spinal injury.
Now Carley does blow for a penalty. This is going to be interesting, with a red card possible. But no, Carley awards the penalty to Clermont, not Munster, and there is no calling in the TMO. This is an incorrect decision, for the law is very clear on this situation.
There are two separate mentions:
Law 19.19 states: “Players may push provided they do so straight and parallel to the ground. Sanction: Penalty.”
Law 19.37(c): “Dangerous play in a scrum includes … Intentionally lifting an opponent off their feet or forcing them upwards out of the scrum … Sanction: Penalty.”
Carley should have focused on the type of lift, the severity of it, and applied Law 19.37(c). But this case needs more than a penalty.
Had Slimani lifted his opposite number a short distance off the ground and let him back down, a penalty would have been sufficient, but in this case the offence ranks alongside the lifting tackle that drives a player head-first onto the ground, a tackle on an airborne player, and contact to the head in a tackle or cleanout that is dangerous.
This is a clear red-card offence, and Slimani should have been sent off.
Not sure if it was legal – but my god did it look impressive pic.twitter.com/IFJBDxDEfb
— james___flynn (@jamesfl68585245) December 19, 2020
One would expect that for the rest of the game Slimani would make life a misery for Josh Wycherley, but the remarkable fact is that the younger player brings to bear all the coaching on scrum technique he has absorbed.
Fast-forwarding now to the scrum at 45:20, Wycherley gains total domination over Slimani, getting his head under the ribcage of his opponent and splitting him from his hooker.
The scrum ends in chaos for Clermont and a penalty to Munster. Slimani endured two more scrums, faring little better, and was subbed off soon after.
The absence of a crowd allowed a clear Irish voice, that of flanker Gavin Coombes, to echo over the field calling to Josh Wycherley as the last scrum Slimani endured was about to set.
“You’ve got him, Josh,” he said. And Josh had indeed got him.
Lifting in the front row is not new. In the 1970s, when Ray McLoughlin, the most powerful loosehead I have seen, was playing for Connacht, Ireland and the Lions, such destruction was common. McLoughlin was injured and had to return home from the 1971 Lions tour to New Zealand. He was replaced in the Test team by Scot Ian ‘Mighty Mouse’ McLauchlan. There exists a photograph from one of the provincial games of Mighty Mouse standing upright with his opposite prop balanced on his head, such is the lift he had achieved. Unfortunately I have not been able to find this image.
With scrum injuries of a serious nature beginning to become more frequent in later years, the law was changed to outlaw this practice. But in recent years the practice has begun to appear again, and referees, especially at the elite level, don’t react to the danger. They must do so. The greatest danger exists when there are front-row mismatches, and this happens at the schools and club level most frequently.
I can’t recall a serious scrum neck injury in an international game. Rampie Stander of South Africa is the only prop I can think of who died on the field, but that was from a heart condition, not a scrum injury. One would put this down to the fact that elite front-row players are not greatly mismatched to the same extent as can still happen at lower levels of the game. Also, the strength and conditioning these elite players have gone through leaves them well equipped to endure and survive the type of situation Josh Wycherley found himself in.
As for the conclusions, there were a some very lucky people involved in this game. Josh Wycherley could have ended up seriously injured. Rabah Slimani could have faced very serious charges for dangerous play causing serious injury or worse. Matthew Carley would have had a lot to answer for upon examination of the whole event.
Fortunately everyone emerged unscathed. Well, almost – Rabah Slimani may have some form of PTSD.
This game will be remembered through the ages in Munster folklore, just as an event long ago: the day the Cork militia beat the Turks at Waterloo, as immortalised by lines penned by Percy French in his song Slattery’s Mounted Fut.