The Sam Warburton incident in Wales’ Rugby World Cup semi-final defeat to France last year has escalated a worrying trend whereby referees are increasingly viewing rugby tackles from a legal context, and are far more likely to hand out red cards, especially early in matches.
Recently in the Aviva Premiership, London Irish number 8 Chris Hala’Ufia was given his marching orders for a so-called tip tackle on Seb Jewell, the London Welsh centre, after only 11 minutes of play. Interestingly the dialogue between the referee, JP Doyle, and touch judge can be heard clearly on match highlights and Doyle immediately claimed Hala’Ufia had made “no effort to bring him (Jewell) down”.
If you watch the tackle again, you will notice the whole incident happens in roughly one second. Contact – tackle made – player hits the turf instantly.
The way a player goes to ground is dependent on the pace they are running at, the ferocity at which they are tackled by the defender as well as the body positions and size of both players. Even if the hit is legal, and therefore not high or deliberately rotating the ball carrier’s legs above their head, followed by dropping him/her or driving them head first into the ground (which is why the spear tackle rule exists), a defender may not always be able to put the player on the ground entirely safely.
But many of these collisions are simply a by-product of rugby’s physicality and a reason it is one of the great contact sports. Jewell was back on his feet before the red card had been handed to Hala’Ufia and even shook the “assailant’s” hand, before the 34 year old Tongan walked off the pitch, to an understanding round of applause from both sets of fans.
The RFU overturned an initial 5-week ban handed out by its own judicial committee but London Irish narrowly lost the match, which could be crucial at the end of the season as they are in a relegation battle, lying second from bottom in the Aviva Premiership.
Lloyd Williams, a teammate of Warburton’s for both club and country, was also sent off early, in the 24th minute of Cardiff Blues’ Heineken Cup home tie against Montpellier. Deemed in some quarters as a tip tackle, but in my view Williams unleashed what can be best described as a careless, but well executed, judo throw on his opposite number, Benoit Paillaugue, who hit the ground with force but which impacted his shoulder, not his head.
It was a clumsy effort but, like Jewell, Paillaugue was already back to his feet before the referee had pulled the red card from his pocket. Williams and the home fans were left bemused: game over, not just for Williams, but for also for the Blues.
As advocated by London Irish coach Brian Smith, why not introduce rugby league’s method of placing players on report and punishing the offence after a match? As Smith argues: “they look at it in the cold light of day and they make an accurate decision… If that tackle was put on report, Chris probably gets a commendation for tackle of the season. But that’s not the case and we’ve paid the price.”
The report system protects the players, integrity of matches and referees, who are under far less pressure to make an immediate “guilty” judgement. Surely a ban, handed out when all television angles have been analysed and not in the heat of the moment match situation, is more desirable to all than a red card? Or even a let off, if the offence is deemed as not serious enough for a sanction.
Earlier this week both Toby Flood and Yannick Nyanga were cleared of tip tackle offences after being cited. Regardless of whether these “not guilty” verdicts were correct, in other circumstances, with different referees or officials having better views, both players could easily have been sent for an early bath, under the zero tolerance guidelines.
Red cards should be a last resort and only used in clear instances of foul and dangerous play. Warburton, Hala’Ufia and Williams were unlucky to be sent off and their so called crimes highlight the complexity and dynamic nature of tackle situations. The IRB can, and they rightly should, still enforce a tough stance to proper spear tackles but without referees being forced to spoil contests, and ultimately cup, league and international competitions.
By Alastair Pickering (@AMPRugby)