Have you heard the one about the Italian, the Irishman and the New Zealander?

Just 5 minutes in to the recent Ulster verses Cardiff Blues game (Friday 27th March) the Ulster number 8 Nick Williams struck the prone Cardiff full back Rhys Patchell on the edge of a maul. Patchell’s injury required lengthy treatment on the field and an overnight stay in hospital to monitor his recovery.

The incident itself has undoubtedly tarnished the reputation of the Ulster number 8 but it has also raised serious questions about the standard of officiating in the PRO 12 and the implications for the integrity of the competition.

Nick W

Bad joke #1

We could have highlighted the initial response from the BBC Northern Ireland commentator when he viewed the incident as the first bad joke but that would be too easy. For the record his response was “I don’t think there is anything wrong with that”……. “I don’t think he is too badly injured …he has just jarred his neck”. Let’s move on.

The more substantive issue is the discussion that went on between the referee (Marius Mitrea from Italy) and the TMO (Alan Rogan from Ireland). This is a transcript of the conversation with the caveat that some words are difficult to make out:

Mitrea to TMO  “Can you confirm he has connected with his elbow to the head?”

TMO “It’s more his shoulder or upper arm”

Mitrea “So from what I can see from the screen it’s a yellow card, unless you tell me its anything more”

TMO “No I concur with that” 

Mitrea “It’s a yellow card to number 8 white”

It is clear from this discussion that both the referee and TMO had the same view that a strike by the upper arm or shoulder in to the exposed prone face of an opponent is only a yellow card. There wasn’t a debate or any sort of discussion between the two to work out what had happened and whether it fell under the definition of a strike to an opponent.

Once the incident had been viewed a few times even our partisan Northern Irish commentators had to concede that this was likely to be a red card. Why, when everyone watching knew it was going to be a red card, did the two most important people see this as a relatively minor offence that only warranted a yellow card?

Bad joke #2

Nick Williams was subsequently cited and the PRO 12 disciplinary hearing released the following statement:

“The Disciplinary Committee, chaired by Roger Morris (Wales) along with Rhian Williams (Wales) and John Doubleday (England), having viewed footage of the incident and listened to representations made by and on behalf of the player, found that the incident was at the top end of the World Rugby sanctions for this type of offence, meriting a 16 week starting point.

“In the absence of any aggravating factors and in light of several mitigating factors, including the player’s exemplary previous playing record, the Disciplinary Committee applied a 8 week reduction from the entry point and suspended the player from playing for 8 weeks.”

So, not only was the offence a red card incident we can now see from the PRO 12 statement that this was a serious incident that has an entry point of a 16 week ban. Why did Mitrea and Alan Rogan get this so wrong? Are the PRO 12 referees adjudicating to a different set of rules and guidelines?

What does this episode tell us?

There are a number of lessons from this sorry episode:

  • We need fully independent officials. It may be the case that “home” officials are not biased towards certain teams but perception is often more important than reality which is why the change must be made.
  • Some PRO12 officials are not up to the required standard.and the protocol between the TMO and referee needs to be clarified. Why are referees making decisions based on viewing a screen from 50 metres away when TMOs have a high definition picture in front of their noses?
  • There seems to be a disconnect between how officials and the disciplinary committees view incidents
  • PRO 12 needs to be more transparent around the release of the disciplinary committee reports. What are these “mitigating factors” mentioned in the official statement. To ensure the process has integrity these details need to be released.

Thankfully Rhys Patchell seems to have made a recovery but the ugly challenge and the subsequent actions have raised a number of questions that PRO 12 need to answer rather than avoid.

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