Rugby had to do something about the head knocks. The revelation that Ryan Jones, an excellent Wales and Lions No 8 and a thoroughly decent bloke, has been diagnosed with dementia at 41, is the latest tragic, salient reminder of why rugby had to do something. But when people are being sent off, and Test matches arguably decided on what are essentially accidents, it’s too tempting to think the lawmakers have gone overboard.
It’s hard to look past the case of Angus Ta’avao, sent off during the second Test against Ireland for something that appeared completely unintentional, a situation made ridiculous when a World Rugby judicial panel decided to suspend him for another three weeks. Ta’avao pleaded guilty to foul play, which is surprising in itself, but tried to argue that the red card was excessive. I’d wager a majority of rugby followers would have backed Angus to the hilt, but not so a judicial panel led by Singapore’s Wang Shao-Ing (a women’s trailblazer in Asian rugby), along with a five-Test England winger from the late ’90s by the name of Leon Lloyd, and Frank Hadden, a former Scotland coach.
In criticising the judiciary, I risk being inconsistent, because during Super Rugby I did complain with some frequency that the judiciary was not being tough enough; that players being sent off for genuinely dangerous play via the 20-minute red card should have been getting more than the piecemeal sentences handed out by a benevolent panel. But here we had a case of someone who many will argue was simply moving forward with his fellow defenders when a sudden switch of play put him in the path of an oncoming runner with virtually no time to react and lower his head to a safer position.
It wouldn’t have been so bad had the 20-minute red been in play, but that was an experiment destined to fail. Put that down to a combination of the lenient Super Rugby Pacific judiciaries, and the traditional Northern Hemisphere mistrust of any initiative coming out of the south. As a consequence, the spectacle, the contest, continues to be distorted and compromised. Don’t get me wrong, Ireland was the better team and thoroughly deserved its historic series win.
The tourists were better coached, better performed, better in pretty much every facet, and they were certainly on top in Dunedin before the Ta’avao incident, but that red card was still a flash point in the series. Surely this is not what the red card is supposed to be about. Banishment from the field is the ultimate punishment for egregious acts of foul play, not accidents – even clumsy ones. The absurd inconsistency was underscored in the final Test. While Brodie Retallick was trudging off with a broken cheekbone, set to miss most of the Rugby Championship, Irish prop Andrew Porter received only a yellow
from referee Wayne Barnes.
If Ta’avao’s was red, then Porter’s should have been too. And if Barnes was right, then Jaco Peyper was wrong in Dunedin. Now that Nigel Owens has retired, Barnes is rightfully rated as the best ref in the world, but in the case of Porter, he showed up a terrible inconsistency, and acted suspiciously like someone too aware of the response to what happened in Dunedin, or even the constant complaints over recent years that Ireland never get a fair deal from him.
If that is the case, it’s a rotten irony that the All Blacks got the rough end both times in this series, while Ireland, when you add in the sending off of England’s Charlie Ewels in the Six Nations for something similar, hasn’t exactly suffered. Yes, rugby has an issue with head injuries, a massive issue, but instead of legislating against accidents, maybe the lawmakers need to dig a little deeper and determine how many of them are due to high tackles, and how many of them are due to illegal clearouts at the breakdown, and then maybe reset their focus. It wasn’t just about high tackles in the July internationals, of course.
There was no excusing Ofa Tuungafasi’s rather dopey act in Dunedin but had Leicester Fainga’anuku actually managed to charge down Mack Hansen’s clearing kick before landing on top of him, he would not have been sanctioned at all. As it was, he was probably lucky not to be red-carded given what happened to Caleb Clarke in Super Rugby.
Over in Australia, it was an absolute travesty that England’s Jonny Hill escaped a ban for the way he goaded Darcy Swain into a headbutt, while there was a decent stink over the yellow cards handed out for intercept attempts gone wrong. Again, I’ll admit to being a supporter of the risk/reward/zero tolerance stance in sevens – where if you take a punt on an intercept and it doesn’t come off, you don’t even bother looking at the ref, you just head for the chair – but somehow in 15s it seems a bit extreme to not allow more benefit of the doubt.
What made it more frustrating was that, while cards were being dished out for these sorts of things, blind eyes were being turned to myriad other negative offences. Top of the list would be players flopping on tacklers, preventing them from rolling away and milking a penalty; players at the breakdown putting their hands on the ball to slow it down and, instead of being penalised, merely being told to take their hands away; and the refusal of refs to do anything about stoppages for feigned injuries.
Maybe the time has come for rugby to undertake a complete review of its means of sanctioning dangerous or negative play. You’ll never convince me that the NRL’s ‘on report’ system is anything more than a cop-out, but rugby has got to find a better way to deal with such matters, and it can start by making a stronger guideline for determining what is deliberate and what is accidental. And please, can we find a way of applying the laws of the game with a lot more consistency and a hell of a lot more common sense?
TONY JOHNSON is a vastly experienced Sky TV and radio broadcaster and rugby author.
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