Does anyone understand rugby’s officiating and sanctions any more, because we don’t.
A week after the farcical events of the first New Zealand v France test, where a horrible shoulder hit to a face wasn’t even considered to be a penalty by the officiating team, we have yet more controversy.
In the 2nd test between the same two nations we saw the French full back sent off for a challenge in the air. The card was early in the game and meant any meaningful contest was over.
We will look at that incident in a bit more detail, because it also throws up some interesting comparisons with the shoulder offence from the 1st test and also another tackle in the u20 World Championship final.
(1) Benjamin Fall red card
Here is the footage.
Fall is judged to not be in a position to catch the ball?
— rugby (@theblitzdefence) 16 June 2018
A few observations about the incident:
- Fall gets a bump from a NZ player running a blocking line that disrupts his run
- Both players have their eyes firmly on the ball and not on the other catcher
- Beauden Barrett jumps early and high, Fall make a small jump much later
- Barrett lands on his upper shoulders/neck
The referee, Angus Gardener, follows the guidelines set out by World Rugby for challenges in the air – indeed you can hear him talk about Fall not being in a position to catch the ball and then looking at where Barrett landed. Here are those guidelines:
Once Gardener has deemed the challenge “not fair”, then because the player lands on his shoulder/neck, the correct decision is a red card. This is good refereeing that follows both World Rugby’s guidelines and previous similar incidents.
Here is an example of very similar incident that was also deemed to be a red card offence.
Jared Payne for Ulster against Saracens.
Similar to the Fall incident, both players are watching the ball, the catcher gets off the ground early and high and Goode lands badly.
Payne was given a red card and a 3 week ban for this (before deductions) as it was considered to be a reckless act.
Although Gardener has followed World Rugby’s guidelines, we have always argued that the guidelines are wrong because they focus primarily on the outcome of the clash and not the action.
Before we discuss that, we need to revisit the Fall incident again because over the weekend the Judicial Committee (JC) looking at the Fall red card has decided to over turn the sending off!
This is an incredible decision because it ignores about 3 or 4 years of referees (and disciplinary panels) judging that players like Fall and Payne who are making a genuine attempt to catch the ball but accidentally collide with a catcher in the air, are being reckless and should be punished with a red card and a ban.
The judgement talks about the fact “the Player, at all times, had his eyes on the ball whilst it was in the air, which showed, in our opinion, a clear intention, on the part of the Player, that he intended to contest it.”
This seemingly contradicts previous judgements where officials have been told that even though a player may be focused on the ball, if that player then makes dangerous contact with a catcher he’s still considered to not be in a position to make a fair challenge.
To add even more confusion the finding goes on to say, “direct and proximate cause for that outcome [the clash] was the result of the Player’s collision with NZ #13”.
This suggests that the check on Fall’s run, and the subsequent slight stumble, was the reason for the dangerous challenge.
This judgement causes even more confusion to an already complex area.
World Rugby Clarification
To try and help our understanding of the law around aerial challenges, World Rugby then issued a clarification statement :
The first line of the statement is very interesting because it says that a player having eyes on the ball is “not by itself a mitigating factor”. The use of the word “itself” gives WR some wriggle room but this line seems to be a clear rebuttal of the Judicial Committee’s finding, where they stated:
“the Player, at all times, had his eyes on the ball whilst it was in the air, which showed, in our opinion, a clear intention, on the part of the Player, that he intended to contest it.”
So we have the JC’s view, that a player can focus solely on the ball and intend to contest it, and WR’s statement that having eyes on the ball isn’t a mitigating factor.
The conclusion therefore, is that Fall was let off due to the bump from New Zealand #13 and that normal rules continue to apply, whereby focusing on the ball and following its trajectory isn’t a mitigation. In short, who jumps first has the rights is still in force.
The guidelines are wrong
To come back to why we think the guidelines are wrong, there are a few areas to consider:
- If both players are focused on the ball why should the player who jumps be absolved of a duty of care, and the “non-jumper” be considered reckless, when both players have shown an equal duty of care to each other?
- Just because a player doesn’t jump, it doesn’t follow that he isn’t in a position to make the catch
- How can we give the rights to the player who is first in the air, when the competing player won’t necessarily be aware of this (because they are focusing on the ball)
The other problem with the guidelines is that the sanction is based on the outcome and not the action of the offending player.
When a player makes a dangerous tackle on a catcher he doesn’t know the outcome, in terms of damage to the catcher, when the tackle is made. In the Fall incident we saw an accidental/reckless clash resulting in a nasty fall from height by Barrett and a red card.
By contrast let’s look at another tackle from the weekend in the u20 World Championship final.
(2) Lucas Tauzin tackle in u20 final
Thanks to @smallclone for the gif
— Smällclöne (@Smallclone) 17 June 2018
A French kick hits the ground and bounces in the air, and as the English player jumps to catch it the French winger (Tauzin) makes a full tackle while the England player is in the air.
Luckily for Tauzin the England player lands on his side and bizarrely the referee and TMO deem it only worthy of a penalty (it’s a yellow card as per the guidance).
So how have we ended up in a position where a player (Fall) can accidentally make contact with the opposition and get a red card, but a deliberate tackle on a player in the air is a penalty (or at worst a yellow card).
Neither Fall nor Tauzin knew the outcome of their challenges when they made them; that’s why it has to be the action that is penalised and not the outcome.
(3) Ofa Tu’ungafasi hit on Remy Grosso
I’m sure we all know this incident by now, but if not have a look at this article.
The referee didn’t think it warranted a penalty, let alone a yellow card and the citing commissioner said it also didn’t warrant a red card because:
“In considering the mechanics of the incident, the citing commissioner determined that there were mitigating factors which prevented the conduct from reaching the red card level in his opinion,”
“These included Remy Grosso’s body position lowering as he went into contact with Sam Cane, who effected the tackle initially, immediately before Ofa Tu’ungafasi joined a dynamic tackle situation.”
The decision is nonsense, as Grosso’s body position hardly changed going in to contact and player’s should be making an effort to wrap with their arms and not just driving the shoulder in to the face.
Regardless of that, what this statement is focusing on is the actions of the tackler and tackled player; the judgement is based solely on the body positions of both players in the clash. It ignores the outcome of the actions, namely Tu’ungafasi making direct contact with force with Grosso’s face.
On one hand we have Fall’s challenge in the air being judged primarily on the outcome of the coming together (where Barrett lands), while the Grosso incident is judged solely on the leading actions and ignores the outcome (a shoulder to the face and a double fracture).
Why do we have this dichotomy of approach where some incidents are judged on outcome and others on actions? If Tu’ungafasi was judged on outcome, he would have received a red card and a long ban.
How do we get out of this mess?
Here are some practical steps:
(1) World Rugby needs to clarify the tackle in the air guidelines in light of Fall’s red card being rescinded. Was the judgement based on the fact that Fall was nudged in the lead up, or can a chaser make a “fair challenge” without having to jump for the ball, as long as they have focused on the ball and are following it’s trajectory?
(2) The rights to the ball in the air shouldn’t just be based on who jumps first and highest. This is usually the catcher and they need to take some responsibility if this is the option they choose. It’s often the catcher in the air who instigates the contact with the defender on the floor.
(3) The tackle in the air guidelines should be amended so they are based on the player’s action and not the outcome
(4) If we think the tackle in the air is a high risk area more drastic steps may be needed, such as only the defending side may catch the ball if it is kicked over head height and there is a competition for the ball as it drops.
World Rugby needs to urgently address these issues as games are being decided by the decisions made and players, referees and supporters seem confused as to what’s going on.
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