Refereeing at tipping point

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.

Lloyd Williams

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)

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29 comments on “Refereeing at tipping point

  1. Nail on head. Review after the match. I didn’t realise they already did this in league, but if it is successfully working there then it’s another reason why it is a sensible idea.

    Would the ref still give a penalty?

    • They also tried the ‘white card’ system in last year’s Super Rugby tournament. Haven’t heard much about it since, but presumably someone did a review…

  2. This system was used in Super Rugby last year with the addition of a ‘white card’

    I have no objections to a review system, but surely anything that should be picked up, is being done so by the citing official? Tip tackles, punches etc all get picked up already without the need for the referee indicating that something should be reviewed.

    My fear is, adding another system is only another get out clause for match day officials. Reviewing something after the game spares them the controversy.

    Imagine a World Cup semi final. England play Australia and Quade Cooper delivers a right hook to the jaw of Owen Farrell who crumples to the floor, in full view of the referee. The referee, knowing its a semi final issues a yellow card and says the incident is up for review. Farrell goes off injured, and Australia win and go into the final. Cue mass controversy.

    The current system is fine. The addition of the TMO as being shown in the Aviva is better.

    What we really need are officials who understand the correct interpretation of the rules, who aren’t afraid to implement them because of criticism, who can go to a TMO who has an equally correct understanding of the rules but has the advantage of a multitude of camera angles at his disposal.

    • Ok, I think that sounds like a good idea. The key for me is to avoid the single official (ignore touch judges, they are ineffectual and useless, always seem keen to avoid getting involved for fear of undermining the ref) making a judgement on something he did not clearly see. As a Wales and Blues fan I see two examples in this article that have directly hurt me in the recent past. I don’t have an issue with the Warbs one but I contest the Williams one and, seeing as it happened right in front of me, I know that it all happened so quickly and at such an angle that there is no way the ref could have had a good enough view of it to make the decision he did without any doubt. As the article points out, it removed any contest from what was already a tough game for the Blues.

      • Brighty I agree, I don’t think the Williams one deserved a sending off. It was a little careless, but it wasn’t dangerous.

        This is where I think the argument for a quick halt in proceedings should come and have it referred to a TMO.

        “John, it’s Mike, can you check the footage for foul play, can you confirm if that was a tip tackle or not?”

        “Mike, it wasn’t a tip tackle, but it was reckless. Penalty against Blues”

        • This has been implemented in the Premiership, but after the first couple of weeks the ref’s seem to have forgotten they can got to the TMO. They got criticised for using it a little too freely early on, and now don’t seem to use it at all. It’s a very good idea, and if used correctly, will work just fine.
          I think the officials need to have more training with the system so they understand when it should be used.

          • In fairness Dazza, the ref went to the TMO for the yellow card given to varndell on saturday.

            He was yellow carded because “he was taken over the horizontal”, but clearly there was no malice so the TMO it seems had little choice.

            The problem of course is this “going over the horizontal” point which seems a little daft. The point to me is that we don’t get players being driven head-first into the ground. That is what a Red card is for, not just lifting players. To me, a penalty should suffice for this.

            As an aside there has been a lot of talk about Varndell being tretaed unfairly, but I feel that;
            (a) if we have this rule/direction for refs, then they have no option, and
            (b) Varndell stood up after tackle contact and so lifting the player up was unavoidable from that point, and it was always going to end controversially. He could have driven through the ball carrier, not up.

  3. Personally, I would prefer a situation where a ref who sees a clear penalty or sending off offence, makes the call, but if he and the assistants were unsighted or unsure, it goes to the TMO if there is concern that there was dangerous foul play but gets reviewed afterwards if it was just a part of play.

    That way you get a reference to TMO if a player is knocked unconscious off the ball (and Hore gets red immediately) but you don’t get the waiting around for a succession of tackles that might or might not be tip tackles, and which could ruin a perfectly good game. This latter point is the key. We all pay good money to watch and enjoy rugby and we don’t want that enjoyment wrecked by poor decisions.

  4. Look a tip tackle where a player’s hips are lifted above his shoulders and then dropped to the ground by the tackler needs to be stamped out of the game all together. If not it will soon trickle down to underage rugby and cause serious problems and maybe even injuries to some young players. It simply needs to be an automatic red card if a tip tackle takes place anywhere in the world and refs need to be directed on this. And every serious rugby journalist should be full square behind this and not trying to create anomalies or excuses for what is highly dangerous play that if not addressed could terminally damage the game at all levels.