By Kieran Rooney
THE shock dismissal of Paul O'Connell spoiled what otherwise was a reasonable weekend for the Irish provinces in the Heineken Cup.
Munster and Ulster both achieved important victories over the Ospreys and Bath respectively, while a weakened Leinster side managed to come away with a crucial losing bonus point from the journey to face the French champions Clermont Auvergne. But the sending off of O'Connell on his long awaited return to Heineken Cup action did much to spoil the party.
After O'Connell made his appearance as a substitute midway through the second half, Munster appeared to be on their way to a decent victory. In fact, their big support must have hoped for a bonus point win when they secured a third try through wing Johne Murphy in the 63rd minute.
Ahead 22-13, there appeared to be little that the Ospreys could do to stop them. But O'Connell then got involved in an incident with the visitors No 8 Jonathan Thomas.
As usual, the man who received his marching orders was not the protagonist. Thomas was pulling at O'Connell's jersey and when he refused to release his grip, the Munster and Ireland second-row swung around and appeared to slap him across the face.
At least that was the initial view. But when repeated on television from a different angle, O'Connell's forearm was seen to connect with the face of the Welshman who immediately fell to the ground holding his face.
Normally, you would have to think that someone as experienced as O'Connell would not have reacted in such a manner. But probably his long stint out of the game made him keener to get involved and consequently more open to provocation.
Following his dismissal by French referee Christophe Berdos, the game was to change dramatically. Munster were on the back foot and much relieved in the end to come away with a 22-16 victory which keeps them on top of the pool two points ahead of their nearest challengers Toulon.
But they must face third placed Ospreys without O'Connell in Swansea next weekend. Even more worrying for both Munster and Ireland is that O'Connell could face a long suspension.
Comparisons were made with a suspension to the former Ospreys player Gavin Henson who got 10 weeks for elbowing a player in the face. On that basis, O'Connell's participation in the Six Nations would be under threat.
Hopefully though, the ban will not be as severe. First, there is the point that his offence did not look as bad as Henson's and secondly there is the fact that he is not known as a dirty player.
The Ospreys forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys admitted as much, stating: "Firstly, I think it's fair to say that Paul is not a dirty player by any stretch of the imagination.
"We play against Paul a lot. We've got a lot of admiration for him as a player. He's a very iconic figure here, so it's disappointing for him that he could miss a large chunk of the season now."
Munster coach Tony McGahan felt that he couldn't comment fully until he had a better look at the incident. He admitted to being initially shocked by the red card, but, then again, he didn't have the aid of the television replays.
But he also knows the situation could have been even worse. Munster had, after all, to play the last 10 minutes with 14 men and were under serious pressure to hold on to their lead.
As it was, they only conceded one more penalty from the visiting out-half Dan Bigger which gave the Ospreys a losing bonus point but it could have so easily have been worse. In the circumstances, McGahan was pleased with the win.
The key to the victory was the way Munster reacted to an intercept try from the Ospreys Irish wing Tommy Bowe. With Munster ahead 8-6 and pushing for a try early in the second half, Bowe gambled and intercepted a pass from Sam Tuitupou.
He subsequently ran in from his own "22" for a try which Bigger converted. Suddenly, Munster were 8-13 down and under real pressure. But, to their credit, they regrouped superbly to hit back with tries from David Wallace and Johne Murphy, both of which were converted by O'Gara, to give them their 22-13 lead.
Unfortunately, the sending off of O'Connell was to spoil matters but not, thankfully, to the extent that it cost Munster victory. Earlier, Doug Howlett had scored a first half try for Munster, with O'Gara also landing a penalty.
Unusually though, O'Gara had an off-day with his goalkicking. Thankfully, that was not the case for the other person chasing the Irish No 10 jersey, Leinster's Jonathan Sexton at Stade Marcel Michelin.
Missing Brian O'Driscoll, Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald from the back division, Leinster badly needed Sexton at his best. Leinster were up against one of the strongest sides in the competition in Clermont Auvergne.
Not only do they possess talent in abundance but they are also over physical to the point of intimidation. Yet, the young Leinster players to come in Eoin O'Malley in the center and Fergus McFadden on the wing did really well.
To compound Leinster's difficulties, they also lost Jamie Heaslip at the start of the second half. Again, his replacement Dominic Ryan impressed with some great tackles when most required.
So, Leinster did well to come away with a losing bonus point from their 20-13 defeat. The fact is that their understrength side performed well in the most difficult circumstances.
Leinster actually led 7-0 with an early well taken try from Shane Horgan, converted from the touchline by Sexton. But the sheer power of the Clermont team eventually told, bring them two tries through Malzieu and Foch.
That said, Leinster were never out of it with Sexton landing two further penalties. But they remained dangerous with the ball in hand until the final whistle.
Once again, Sean O'Brien in the back-row was magnificent, while Isaac Boss justifified the decision to play him ahead of Eoin Reddan at scrum-half.
Unfortunately though O'Brien picked up an injury, and coach Jo Schmidt must now hope that both he and Heaslip recover in time for Saturday's return leg at the Avivia Stadium. There's also, of course, the hope that Brian O'Driscoll might be able to resume but the odds would appear to be against him.
Despite the defeat, Schmidt was far from downhearted. Leinster still lead the pool, a point clear of Clermont, with Racing Metro a point further back following their 24-21 away victory over Saracens.
"I'm learning all the time, and I have confidence in these players." commented Schmidt. Roll on next Saturday.
Ulster were in action at Ravenhill on Firday night when they overcame a disastrous opening to overcome Bath 22-18. That result, combined with Italian side Aironi's shock home 28-27 victory over Biarritz, puts them right back in the hunt.
Biarritz still lead Pool Four but Ulster are now only two points behind them. Much will clearly depend on how Ulster perform in their return game, away to Bath bext Saturday.
If they can cut out the mistakes they are in with a chance. They gifted Bath two first half tries to trail 15-3 but hit back with an intercept try of their own through South African Pedrie Wannenburgh.
His effort and the accurate goalkicking of Ian Humphreys made certain of victory. Humphreys finished with 17 points, landing five penalties and a conversion.
Defeat is blow to Connacht's hopes
CONNACHT'S Amlin European Challenge Cup hopes where dealt a major blow when they were defeated 20-9 by Harlequins at The Stoop on Sunday.
Consequently, Connacht are now five points adrift of the top two in the group, Bayonne and Harlequins. While they played with tremendous spirit, and won plenty of possession, they simply could not apply the finishing touch.
Nor did it help that conceded a couple of soft tries. Unfortunately, Connacht could not get in for the try some of their pressure deserved and all they had to show for their efforts were three penalties from out-half Miah Nikora.
With only one team going through,they would now seem to have no chance of emerging from what is admittedly a very tough group.
Irish team wins gold
IRELAND picked up a surprise and most welcome Christmas bonus by winning a gold medal at the European Cross Country Championships at the Algarve on Sunday.
The gold medal was won by the men's Under 23 team of David McCarthy, Brendan O'Neill, Michael Mulhare, David Rooney, John Coughlan and Ciaran O Lionaird. Their ability to have four runners finish in the top 20 meant that they had 16 points to spare over their nearest rivals France.
In truth, not many observers believed they could do it, although it was known that Ireland had a very good Under 23 team. McCarthy finished 11th, O'Neill 13th, Mulhare 16th and Rooney 20th.
Irish team manager Anne Keenan-Buckley was understandably estatic, commenting: "We knew that we had our best ever Under 23 team. But we also knew it would be very tough as there were 16 teams out there. So, this is a really fantastic achievement."
Ireland last gold medal was won by the great Catherina McKiernan when she finished first in the women's race at the inaugural championships in 1994.
Fionnula Britton did her best to emulate McKiernan at the Argarve but had to be satisfied with fourth spot in the senior women's race. It was particularly disappointing as she finshed only just behind Portugal's bronze medalist Dulce Felix.