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Rugby

Heineken Cup : Munster 19 – Scarlets 13

Munster did it to us again, for the fourth game in a row.  Dragging us to the very brink before finally dogging out a win.  I told you that my friend, Wrinkly Joe, has been told by his doctor to stay on the cigarettes, the saturated fats and the booze but give up Munster rugby because it’s bad for his heart.  Now, I’m inclined to believe that the doctors in Munster should come together and issue a blanket warning to their patients.  Watch this stuff at your peril.

We all thought there would be a backlash after last week’s victory in Llanelli.  Scarlets would want to return the compliment.

And so, as the Geek and I trudged out to Thomond Park on a sharp, sunny forenoon, it was in hope rather than confidence.  Avalon beckoned.  An almost Arthurian mist hung over Limerick as if to make our Welsh visitors feel at home, and perhaps to lull them, but these are knights, not knaves, and they came well prepared for the joust.

Munster fought a rearguard action for much of the game, with neither side helped by referee Dave Pearson who inexplicably forgot to visit Specsavers, judging by the number of infringements he overlooked.  At times, it looked like Scarlets were playing American football, not rugby, if you judged it by the amount of interference running they did without a peep from Pearson’s whistle, but of course, he also overlooked one or two forwardish passes from Munster, so I suppose we can hardly complain.   That’s the professional game: played on the edge of the laws.

Anyway, as usual, they pulled it out of the fire, although I though Scarlets looked more dangerous for most of the game and probably deserved a bit more than their losing bonus point, which could well turn out to be a very important point indeed.

On the positive side, Murray had a great game and so did Zebo  apart from a couple of decidedly dodgy kicks.  Hurley stayed cool under the high ball.  Earls looked efffective but Mafi, I’m afraid, had a howler.  Twice he fluffed gold-plated chances to run for the line, and when he got possession, he seemed unsure what to do with it.

O Gara, as usual, kept his head, and Munster in the game when Scarlets threatened to overrun us, and of course, as normal, Paul O Connell provided the leadership required.

I was never much good with the permutations of league tables but Munster are now in pole position, facing games against Northampton and Castres.  The Saints demolished a demotivated Catres yesterday, 45-0, but will be playing for pride against Munster.

Some work still to be done, but it’s not a bad way to end the year.

 

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Categories
Rugby

Scarlets vs Munster

In a few minutes, the vital Munster-Scarlets match will kick off but Munster fans won’t be feeling over-confident.  After getting out of jail twice in a row thanks to last-minute drop goals from Ronan O Gara, Munster are lucky to be where they are in the points table.  Having lost Jerry Flannery, David Wallace, Keith Earls and only last week, Doug Howlett, Munster are depleted, but of course, as we saw when they took the All Blacks to the wire, that’s when they’re at their determined best.

It’s a big call to travel to Llanelli and take on what is essentially the Welsh international team.

I’m here now in my pub of choice, with my old mate Wrinkly Joe, contemplating two delicious black pints but not particularly sanguine about this.

Back later.

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Half time update.

Jesus Christ, what a half.  Scarlets tore into Munster for the first 20 minutes, dominating possession and putting 8 points on the board with no reply.  Time after time they turned over Munster ball until suddenly Munster seemed to wake up and string a series of fancy passes together, going down the tunnel after 40 minutes, 11-8 ahead.

I’ll tell you this: whatever else you can say about them, following Munster is never boring.

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Full time.

Scarlets 14 –  Munster 17

Wrinkly Joe’s doctor was on the phone with the bad news.  Sorry Joe.  You’ll have to quit watching Munster.  Go back on the cigarettes.  They’re safer for your heart.

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Categories
Rugby

Munster 27 — Castres 24

If you had gone into a bookies this morning and said, Excuse me, I’d like to put a tenner on Ronan O Gara making the winning score with the last kick of the game, what do you think they’d have said to you? Any decent bookie would have tucked your folded note into your pocket and sent you home.  Keep your money.  I might be a bookie, but I’m not a thief.

I mentioned this to my beloved son, Bullet, who replied, Imagine the odds you’d have got if you went into a bookie shop last week and bet on O Gara doing it twice.

Half way through today’s game, sharing a delicious scoop or two with Wrinkly Joe, he leaned over and said, You know how this will end, don’t you?

No, I replied.  How will this end?

With eighty minutes on the clock, Munster will have possession, O Gara will be in the pocket and he’ll slot one over.

How we laughed about that.

Guess what?  With eighty minutes on the clock, O Gara dropped into the pocket and slotted one over to win the away game in Stade Toulousain.  Sickener.  If that was Thomond Park, I reckon the entire crowd would have surfed home on a tsunami of barf, but here comes the downside.

It’s great that Munster have pulled the last two games out of the fire, but as a regular contributor here pointed out, they  wouldn’t  have to do that sort of thing if they were managing the breakdown properly, which they are not.  I couldn’t count the number of infringements Munster were penalised for, and even if you think that Wayne Barnes is a particularly whistle-happy referee, it doesn’t matter.  A professional team must assess the referee as much as the opposition, take note of his tendencies, and play the game accordingly.  Referees are not robots and the likes of Munster, twice winners, should have no difficulty adjusting.  I don’t know whose responsibility that is, but ultimately it goes back to Tony McGahan.

Some people are saying that the group is now down to two, since both Northampton and Castres have lost two games, but there’s still a way to go before we can declare anyone dead and buried.  Certainly, Llanelli and Munster are in prime position, but let’s see what happens in the back-to-back December games.

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Categories
Rugby

Munster 23 – Northampton 21

Sport can be an allegory for life, but this was a metaphor for the times we live in.  It was inspirational.  An absolute refusal to lie down.  A complete rejection of the obvious truth that they were going to lose.  An overturning of reality.

One point behind and with two minutes left on the clock, Munster decided to dig in and grind out a result.  They put the heads down, they recycled the ball over and over, at one stage going all the way back to the half-way line under pressure from the Saints, but fighting their way on, yard by yard until finally, safe in the pocket, six minutes and 41 phases later, Ronan O Gara slotted as neat a drop goal as you’ll ever see to end Northampton’s hopes.

What a great game, but more importantly, what a great endgame.  I don’t know about you, but I have never witnessed such an exhibition of guts, brains, balls and backbone as we saw tonight in Thomond Park.  However, in case you think I’m being parochial, let me say that this is aimed as much at Northampton as it is at Munster.  They all deserve whatever praise comes their way, although I’d have to admit that I’m a little biased, which is probably forgivable in the circumstances.

It sends out a message: If you want to beat us, you’ll have to produce something out of the ordinary.  I’m sure the Northampton lads are sick tonight, though I don’t take any satisfaction from that.  They’ve always been tough and honourable opponents, and their supporters have always had a good time here in Limerick.  But I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t gloat a tiny bit, if only privately, in my own mind, for a second or two.

This was Munster at its best.  At its absolute best.  It exemplified the ethos that has sustained the effort all these years, the determination to fight back in the face of almost insuperable odds and more often than not, to win.  I couldn’t make it tonight, unfortunately, and I’ll regret that forever because this game surpasses all the miracle matches that I was at.  The only Munster performance I can think of that exceeds this was the All Blacks game.

For two minutes before the 80th, and for a further four afterwards, Munster kept the ball in hand, never making a mistake, never knocking on, never conceding a penalty, completely focussed on one objective: an absolute refusal to be beaten in Thomond Park.  They did that for 41 phases, and I have to say that full credit is also due to Northampton for not conceding a penalty despite the pressure.  Back and forth, east to west, never straying too close to the line, Munster drove it forward, fell back, drove forward again until finally O Gara, the maestro, judged that the moment was right, took his time and slotted the three points, finally allowing Nigel Owens to blow the whistle.

As I said, it was an allegory and a metaphor.  These guys showed us that no matter how hard the times, how tough the opposition, with balls, guts, brains and backbone, you can still fight back and win, provided you show enough downright cussedness.

Marvellous.  I can say no more.

 

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Update.  It’s unfortunate that Saints coach Jim Mallinder is blaming the referee.  I thought he would be bigger than that, as his supporters are.

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Categories
Rugby

Heineken Cup Final — Leinster 33 Northampton 22

Leinster were dead and buried at half time, going into the dressing room 22-6 down.  Northampton were killing them in the scrum, at the breakdown and in open play.

I’ll be honest with you.  I thought it was over.  I couldn’t see them coming back, not so much because the gap was too big, but because Saints were so dominant in every aspect of play.  And yet, right from the restart, it looked like the two teams had swapped shirts, as Leinster smashed into their opponents, kept possession, forced them to defend desperately, and Jonny Sexton racked up score after score.

We’ve never seen such a comeback in a European Cup final.  Within a quarter of an hour, Leinster had the lead.  It was an extraordinary display of determination and refusal to to quit, combined with some outstanding individual performances.  Brian O Driscoll, as usual, was at the top of his game, proving once again that he is one of the finest players ever to step onto a rugby pitch, and Sexton put in the display of his life.

Whatever was said in the dressing room worked.  Leinster’s scrummaging improved beyond recognition and the substitution of Jennings for McLaughlin probably improved things at the breakdown for Leinster.  O’Driscoll got the measure of Foden and I thought Nacewa was immense under the high ball.

It’s true that Saints were tired after a hard semi-final against Leicester the previous week, and Ashton must also have been feeling the effects of the thumping he got from Tuilagi in that match.  It’s also true that Hartley got a nasty bang on the head in the first half and stayed on to finish the game, but all in all, I think Northampton were in the end beaten by a team with more self-belief on the day.  With twenty minutes to go, it seemed to me that their players were acting like defeated men.  The body language was not good.

On a broader point, this match showed in stark detail how punishing the modern game has become. I know the players are all much bigger and stronger now than they used to be say 15 years ago, but that also means bigger impacts, and while you can beef up in the gym, bone is still just bone, and ligament is still just ligament.  I’m beginning to wonder what the future holds for professional rugby players at this level.  In the last few weeks we saw the retirement of two young players from the Munster squad : Barry Murphy, who had a nasty ankle break against Ulster,  and Ian Dowling, who suffered a bad hip injury against Ospreys back in September.  Of the players who soldier on, what will life be like in ten years time?  What lifelong damage have they suffered, especially players as courageous as Brian O Driscoll?

But that’s a discussion for another day.

Here’s wishing Leinster well.  They thoroughly deserved their second Heineken Cup, matching Munster’s haul, and we’ll welcome them to Thomond Park next weekend for the final of the Magners League.
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Categories
Rugby

Dylan Hartley Feels the Bite

What kind of a meathead is Dylan Hartley?

Answer : a very funny one.  Hartley gave us the best laugh of any sporting event all year when he tried to push his forearm down Pedrie Wannenburg’s throat and then complained to the ref when he got bitten.

What a tosser.

Watch this clip from the Northampton-Ulster game have a laugh

 

Categories
Rugby

Munster Rugby — Time For Renewal?

For the first time in 13 years, Munster have failed to qualify for the knock-out stages of the  European Cup and people in Limerick are saying all kinds of things about the game.  I spoke to somebody this morning, a person heavily involved in rugby, who couldn’t think of a single good thing to say about the Munster performance.

It’s hard to play against top-class opposition when your back row is missing, I ventured.

Yeah, he agreed.   And your front row.  And your second row.

Was it really that bad?  I certainly thought so.  They squeezed four penalties out of us from the scrum in the first half hour.   We had no forward momentum at all for virtually the entire match, and the scoreline didn’t reflect the fact that Toulon were in complete control.  Wallace’s try came only after they had relaxed, with the game wrapped up.

There was little comfort to take from the performance.

No.  Scratch that.  There was nothing at all to take from it.  Nobody performed well.  Howlett was bustled over the line time after time, but at least he was working hard and nearly scored a try except for an unlucky toe in touch.  The flat ball he received throughout the day didn’t give him much scope to create anything.

Nobody broke the line, a tribute to the Toulon defence, and Donncha O Callaghan’s yellow card from a stupid illegal tackle on an uninvolved man cost us 13 points.  On the other hand, I thought O Gara’s binning was a dreadful decision by the referee.  He was no more guilty than anyone else, and had been the victim of gouging before the fight broke out.   That disrupted Munster’s already scrappy game, but it’s not an excuse.

Toulon were better than us.  Wilkinson was superb.  So were Contepomi, Sackey, Van Niekerk, Mignoni and Bruno.  What am I talking about?  They were all on top form, unlike our fellas who looked tired and dispirited.

It looks like time for a change.  Certainly it looks like time for new coaching staff, and yet we hear that McGahan has been awarded an extension to his contract.  While I wouldn’t like to get into the witch-hunting that characterises soccer management in Britain, it seems a strange decision to extend the manager’s contract before he delivers what he’s paid for: qualification for the final stages.

At the same time, Paul Warwick is leaving, because Munster can’t afford to pay what he’s worth and there’s no doubt that Warwick is one of the best.  A first-class all-rounder, he’ll be missed, but Munster need the money to buy a first-rate prop and with a budget of €3.5 million, they can’t afford the luxury of a new front-row and Paul Warwick, no matter how good he might happen to be.

Apart from the coaching team, what of renewal on the field?  I’d like to think this is a transitional squad, but I don’t see the younger guys coming forward to replace the likes of Hayes, O Gara, Quinlan, O Connell, Wallace or Horan.  Are we at the point where money will define the shape of the new Munster, with bought-in talent outnumbering local players?  Up to now, Munster has welcomed immigrants like Howlett, Warwick, Williams, Langford, Pucciarello, Tipoki and Mafi.  These guys all bought into the party and were adopted as locals, but will the support be the same if the entire team is Australian, Kiwi, South African, Argentinean and Tongan?

This is a defining moment for Club Munster.   Not only is the team losing on the field, but Munster Inc is losing the sympathy of long-established supporters.  Already we hear the rumblings of dissent among the fan-base, who believe the whole thing has become too much of a business and not enough of a tradition.

The pensioners who saw their terrace tickets double and then quadruple in price are starting to ask why they should remain loyal to a corporate entity that seems to care little for them.

When the Munster fans start to feel alienated and ignored, you know it’s time for deep and painful reflection, made all the more painful by the unfortunate behaviour of the Toulon supporters who tore up sheets of newspaper and threw them in the air, shouting Garbage! and Merde! It’s a dirty tradition I was unaware of until somebody explained it to me after the match.

Zut, alors!

Well and good.  Keep doing that and we’ll keep showing respect when your players take their kicks.  But it would be a very long road indeed that had no turning.

Meanwhile, Leinster look effective, organised, incisive and unstoppable.  I think they’ll win the cup and I’ll probably lay a small wager to that effect.

Categories
Limerick Rugby

Limerick in the Sun, With Rugby and Partying

Yesterday is another planet.

It’s hard to believe now, as I look out on the pelting rain, what a nice day yesterday was, and yet, far off in the west, I think I can see a clearance.  Maybe not all is yet lost.

It was late when I dragged myself out, due to carousing and excessive partification, but Saturday morning would not be complete for me — as you know– without a trip to the market. It has to be done.

There was a nice little buzz to the town already, with the red-jerseyed hordes wandering around, ready for the early kick-off.

I was feeling a little peckish when I bumped into this fellow eating what appeared to be a nice bowl of lamb Madras.

Excuse me, I said to him.  That appears to be a nice bowl of lamb Madras.

It certainly is, he replied.   You can get it over there.

So I did, and it set me up for the day.

I wandered down town, where I came across these ladies promoting use of the internet by elderly people.  There’s some sort of prize and I promised them I’d give them a link, so here it is.

Who’s it for?  I asked them.  Older people, they said.  Silver surfers.

Older? I replied. Look!  There’s a baby in a buggy.  He’s older than the other teenshy weenshy little baby in that pram.  Does he count?

No.  He’s too young.

But he’s an older person.

Yes, but he’s not an older person the way we mean.  You know, older?  Wink?  Wink?

You mean old?

Aaaarrgghhh!!  they screamed in unison.  You can’t say that.  La la la la  lalalalala can’t hear you!

How about me? I went on. I’m incredibly old, and I run a website all on my ownio, and I don’t even have a younger person showing me where all the buttons are.

No, they said.  You’re too older.

You mean far too old?

Aaaarrgghhh!! they screamed in unison.  You can’t say that.  La la la la  lalalalala can’t hear you!

I grow older, I grow older, I told them.  I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolleder.

This day was taking a turn for the weirder.  Time for a pre-match pint to steady the older nerves.

The town was getting ready.  Calm before the storm.  It was time to head for Thomond Park and see what these French chappies were made of.

The place was looking good. and the crowd were looking ugly, as usual, but as someone said to me later, what’s this Stand Up and Fight business?  Do we really think the opposition will be intimidated by one small woman singing Stand up and fight?

A haka is intimidating, but really now. Come on.  Remember the Maka?  Now that was a challenge.

The game opened with a Toulon try in the very first minute which brought howls of venom from the crowd, who weren’t blind and knew a forward pass when they saw one.  But in fairness to them, they stayed quiet for the conversion, apart from one or two day-tripping idiots who were soon put in their place.

It wasn’t so much a setback for Munster as a poke in the ribs, and before long they were battering away at the Toulon defence, with telly addict Wayne Barnes sending two clear tries upstairs for adjudication.  On this occasion, for some reason, there was a blind man in charge of the video.  It must be some sort of equality thing.

Not deterred by stupid refereeing, Leamy went over in the 10th minute after a lovely little reverse pass from Stringer, and ROG kicked the conversion.

The brakes were off the train.

After that, it was pretty much one-way traffic, although Toulon put up a solid fight, and as somebody pointed out to me later, the final scoreline of 45-18 didn’t reflect the quality or intensity of the game they played.

Jonny Wilkinson’s appearance for Toulon in the second half changed the shape of the game a little, but Munster didn’t blink and before long, he too was wrapped up and in the post.

Funniest moment of the match came when Dr Phil was sin-binned to chants of Cheerio from the laughing Munster crowd, but there were a few more worrying sights.  Paul Warwick didn’t look good as he limped off, assisted by two helpers.  I thought his left ankle might be injured.  The loss of our Australian and New Zealand players will tell against us when the Irish players are committed for the international campaign, so this is not good news.

And Jerry Flannery limped off after pointing at his calf, an injury he has already suffered this year.

On the positive side, Tony Buckley has imposed himself on the game in a way we haven’t sdeen up to now, and both the Munster and international management will be happy to see a credible replacement emerge for John Hayes, who can’t have much professional playing time left in him.

Stringer, as ever, had a solid, workmanlike game, covering huge amounts of ground, delivering lightning-fast ball and biting ankles, or at least tapping them.

Leamy and Wallace imposed themselves on everything that came their way while Micko as usual was a magnificent soldier for Munster.

Final score, Munster 45, Toulon 18.  All well with the world.

Time to head for town and grab a couple of scoops.  It’s over there, it’s over there.

After that, it’s all a blur.  The town is in party mode, despite woes of the economy, so let’s enjoy our own little Weimar Republic party while we can, before the Biffoites start taxing fun.

Somewhere in this huddle, I believe, are members of my family and assorted contributors to this site, but I’ll not be delving into such a crowd this night.   And so to bed …


Categories
Rugby

London Irish 23 — Munster 17

Not an entirely disappointing start to the 2010 Heineken Cup campaign, but still a game that could and should have been won.  Munster came away with a bonus point thanks to a sweet little grubber from O Gara that stood up nicely for Munster inside centre Sam Tuitupou to score a last-minute try, but it was partly thanks to the No 12 that they needed such a last-minute reprieve.  Tuitupou, like Lifeimi Mafi last week, in a stupid tackle on Gordon Darcy , cost Munster 3 points and got himself binned for a disgraceful spear-tackle.  He now faces a suspension, joining Mafi in the stand for the next seven or eight weeks if he’s lucky.

London Irish never looked more than ordinary, although Lamb’s kicking was mostly spot-on and Bob Casey was magnificent, but Munster are currently fielding a weakened squad.   Tomás O Leary is out with a broken thumb, Jerry Flannery is still not match fit, and therefore watched the game in the same pub as I did.  Nobody knows when Paul O Connell will return.  Ian Dowling has an injured hip and Keith Earls is not yet up to full speed.

Despite that, Earls never looked less than dangerous and Stringer stepped into the gap for O Leary with characteristic confidence.  There is no end to this man, and despite what his critics say, I have the greatest admiration for him.

There’s little to say about London Irish’s intercept try from Topsy Ojo.  It happens, and it never indicates how a game was evolving, but coming in the first minute of the restart, it certainly punched Munster in the kidneys.

Mushie Buckley, on the other hand, was in my opinion on top of his game and put in his best ever performance in a Munster shirt.  It was a pity that he didn’t manage to carry the ball over the line with 20 minutes to go, which is a surprise for a man of his weight and strength.  Armitage deserves full credit for holding him up but the truth is that  a man of Buckley’s size should have driven his opponent and the ball over the line with no trouble at all.  More coaching needed.  If that try had gone in, Munster were in a position to win the game.

Quinlan’s omission from the bench was a strange decision, and Paul Wallace came on too late, though when he did, his strength, speed and athleticism made a huge difference.

There’s something not entirely right in the Munster management set-up at the moment.   We hear stories of Quinlan storming out and of dissent among the players.  Rumours are circulating that McGahan might have resigned, or might be about to quit.  Nobody knows.

Looking at yesterday’s game, I’m bound to say that I can’t imagine Munster losing if Paul O Connell had been at the helm, if Qunlan and Wallace had been on from the start or if the three-quarters line was operating at full throttle.  Any one of the above would have taken it for us, in my opinion.

Still, not to worry.  London Irish wanted to send the visitors home empty-handed, and they failed. It could yet turn out to be a most valuable bonus point.

Categories
Rugby

Harlequins Blood Cheating — Doctor Faces Disciplinary Hearings

Dr Wendy Chapman is unemployed and risks utter disgrace including removal from the register of medical practitioners because a cheating thug — Tom Williams — screamed into her face in a dressing-room full of pumped-up, aggressive Harlequins players.  Wendy Chapman, who was recovering from breast cancer surgery and suffering severe depression, should never have been put in that position by Harlequins management.

The man who orchestrated the cheating, Dean Richards, got a three-year ban from coaching.  The 25-year-old thug who intimidated the doctor.got a 3-month ban, while Wendy Chapman, who had no part in the plan to cheat Leinster out of the Heineken Cup quarter final, faces ruin.

How and why did such a thing come about?

For those who don’t remember the game, Harlequins needed to get a specialist kicker on the field late in the match, to try and snatch a late victory.  They needed their main kicker, Nick Evans of New Zealand, who had gone off injured earlier, but the only way to get him back was as a replacement for a blood injury.  Tom Williams was the man designated to have that blood injury.

So what happened?

We know that Williams bit into a joke blood capsule, and we know that Professor Arthur Tanner, the Leinster team doctor, instantly spotted that it was a fake.  We know that Williams, the dimwit, was caught on video winking as he left the field.  We know that the match officials, including respected referee Nigel Owens, refused to listen to Tanner’s protests, which deserves an inquiry in itself to establish their motivations.  We know that when Tanner tried to get into the Harlequins dressing room to examine the injury, as he was entitled to do, he was verbally abused and physically prevented from entering.  We know that  Williams demanded that Wendy Chapman cut his lip to produce a real blood injury and that she repeatedly refused to do so until he screamed at her to Cut my fucking lip!!

As it happened, Leinster won the game anyway, but when the cheating was discovered and the General Medical Council inquiry began, Chapman was suspended from the hospital where she worked as an A&E consultant and is now out of work.

I’m inclined to agree with the opinion of Tanner, who appeared at the hearing as a defence witness for Chapman, that she has already paid the price for what happened and should not be subjected to any more pain.  What she did had no effect on the outcome of the match, it didn’t endanger anybody and, while it was unprofessional, was hardly at the most grievous end of the scale of misconduct.  I hope the word of a surgeon as eminent as Tanner will stay the GMC’s hand enough to spare this poor woman any further suffering.

Since the cheat Dean Richards will soon be back in work, and since Tom Williams is over his suspension, maybe the decent thing to do would be to acknowledge that Wendy Chapman (who knew nothing about the conspiracy to cheat) has been put through enough.