The last two rounds of the Heineken cup threw up some interesting refereeing decisions as well as some good rugby. I didn’t see the Saracens penalty try but that’s not the kind of decision I want to talk about today anyways. I’m thinking specifically of Fernandez Lobbe’s yellow card and Jared Payne’s red. Because Lobbe’s card came early in the game and Toulon still managed to score while he was in the bin, it became a relatively small talking point. In contrast Payne’s red card came in the first five minutes all but ensuring that Ulster would not win. Many felt that it was a harsh decision but personally I had little doubt that a red was likely when I saw it happen. The decision was talked about throughout the game and for quite a while afterwards and was quite tedious in its banality. Many of you have probably realised that I became a rugby fan later in life, and I never played at school or club level as it was not available to me. Often that is perceived as a negative, some might say I don’t understand the game, etc. While that was true for a long time with regards the laws of the game (see I said laws not rules??? nailed it), I feel it gives me a different perspective on the issue of safety in the game. The likes of Neil Francis and to a lesser extent Eddie O’Sullivan often bemoan the extinction of rucking, sledging and all around bad behaviour, and believe the game has been neutered. Both Francis and O’Sullivan are now keen NFL fans and have specifically identified the physicality of the game as its key interest to them. That’s all well and good but even in the ‘good old days’ there was a line where physicality stopped and recklessness began, even if that line was further out than it is now.
Rugby is obviously a physically demanding sport, and because of that its important that referees feel able to make the big decisions and even more important that they err on the side of caution. Wayne Barnes’ phrase at the weekend was key – a duty of care. Rugby, like almost all physical sports, is inherently damaging to the players bodies and sometimes minds. Its not a particularly nice thought but its a fact. Just this year our own Brett Wilkinson has had to retire from an injury sustained during a game, and Gavin Duffy has been let go, seemingly unable to return from injury at a high enough standard. There are multiple other examples including Shane Horgan Jerry Flannery, David Wallace, and Denis Leamy to name a few since the last world cup, all quality players who had their careers cut short through injuries. Importantly all of those injuries occurred without any particularly significant act of foul play. Matthew Hampson was paralysed during scrum practice, as was Daniel James, both promising young players. Rugby is a great game, especially for the spectator, but its plenty physical enough and plenty dangerous enough without bringing added danger into it.
For all those reasons I was happy to see Wayne Barnes and Jerome Garces err on the side of caution. Unfortunately it seems that the Celtic League don’t share this position. Connachtclan regulars have probably seen my thread about the Specsavers fair play league. What has struck me over the course of the season is just how badly dangerous play is officiated in the league.
Here are some ‘highlights’ from this season.
Cardiff lock Bradley Davies was cited in September and given a two match ban for an illegal shoulder charge. This incident was not picked up by the ref during the game so I applaud the work of the citing commision in this instance. But what’s does the article say, a three week ban reduced to two for remorse? That doesn’t make sense; a shoulder charge is not something that happens by accident, but as importantly Davies has previous ill discipline and missed most of the six nations before last after a tip tackle.
In this example Tipuric tip tackles the Edinburgh scrum half. He holds onto the number nine for a second or two before dumping him, making it appear to have been a decision on his part to hurt the half back. The referee decision was only a yellow which can be forgiven if he didn’t see the incident clearly, but this was not followed up by the citing commissioner. In the same video there were several punches thrown by at least one Edinburgh player that could have been worthy of a citation.
Lorenzo Cittadini and Aleki Tutui of Treviso and Edinburgh respectively were cited and banned for three and two weeks each at various points throughout the season, for striking and dangerous tackling. The latter occurred in the game in which Tipuric was not cited.
Francisco Chaparro lifts and drives Issac Boss into the ground. He received a straight red and a 10 week ban. Again we should be glad to see the ref making the right decision and a robust sentence being given. But this still rankles; was Nick de Luca’s tackle on Tom Grabham three weeks worse than Chaparro’s (de Luca was given a 13 week ban last year).
There doesn’t seem to be video available of the incident any more, but if de Luca’s tackle is to be judged worse then I feel it could only be because he didn’t control the player on the way to the ground which is part of the laws, but Chaparro obviously – to me at least – drove Issac Boss into the ground and hit the back on the ground with his own momentum. Its hard to know if there’s a right answer here, but it feels odd nonetheless.
These are the latest citation and ban incidents. Liam Williams was later cited for a dangerous tackle that can be seen here. The first thing to note is that Williams’ tackle on Cuthbert in the air is at least as bad as Payne’s, but if one thing is clear from these examples it is that the extent of the injury decides how harsh the decision is on the pitch. The citation committee upheld that it was a red card incident after the fact. Williams picked up a second yellow later in the game resulting in a red card. He can also be seen playing silly buggers early in the game at a ruck on the Scarlets line with the other Blues winger. All in all he packed a lot of action into a short night, and received a two match ban.
Copeland was red carded for a stamp on Williams and also received a two match ban. This was unexpected as has a terrible disciplinary record and there was no mention of leniency being shown for remorse in the league report. However this decision appears controversial as the citing committee was an all-Irish trio and with Copeland about to become a Munster player an argument can be made that this short ban has preferentially benefited the province.
That is a quick round up of the worst offenders in the league. I had thought about looking at more yellow card incidents like Tipuric’s that should have resulted in harsher penalties, but I think its clear from the proven citing incidents alone that there is very little accountability or standards across the league. This is made worse in my opinion by a changing citing committee panel – its impossible for the league to hand down consistent bans if different people are making the decisions each time.
I’ve already said enough, but to finish I want to offer my suggestions that could help improve the league’s image as well as the level and length of bans. Firstly I feel that there should be an intermediate citation standard, whereby events that are considered dangerous or foul play but are not worth a red card are picked up. These would be recorded and if a player amassed a certain amount in a period (perhaps over the course of the season) they would receive a ban of a certain length. The ban could be a set length or could be calculated according to the incidents. This would encourage players to be more disciplined and remember their duty of care and would also prevent players and clubs from benefiting from bad behaviour on the lower end of the scale. So taking Tipuric above as an example, he might receive a written citation after his yellow card and if another incident occurred within a set time he would receive a ban. This could perhaps also be applied to all yellow card incidents involving dangerous play.
The second thing would be to explicitly link the players record to the length of the ban. At the minute it rarely happens that a player’s ban is lengthened due to their previous ill behaviour. I believe that for every prior incident there should be an additional match ban added to their sentence. It could be that every three or four yellows would equate to a match in this instance, a red or previous citation would also equate to a match. This would be added to each sentence and so if a player was persistently ill disciplined they would receive longer and longer bans with each recurrence. If bans are to continue to be shortened for good behaviour, remorse, apologies and what have you then this priors ban would be added after that. So Davies ban could be reduced to two weeks for remorse, but he would still receive an additional week for his previous tip tackle along with all the other incidents. In this way a player with poor discipline would become marked out as such and eventually become a burden on their team, forcing them to either cop on or be dropped.