GAVIN RICH: From Farrell furore to Willemse incident, red cards a World Rugby poser
The weekend showed just how complicated everything may be becoming for the sport’s global governing body
That World Rugby finds itself in a quagmire over measures the organisation takes in its attempts to make the game safe less than three weeks out from the start of the 2023 edition of the Rugby World Cup is an understatement.
And after a week in which all else in rugby was overshadowed by the outcry over the decision of a disciplinary committee (DC) to overturn England captain Owen Farrell’s red card, the weekend showed just how complicated everything may be becoming for the sport’s global governing body.
There was still some speculation at the time of writing over whether the yellow card shown to Springbok replacement back Damian Willemse in the 52-16 win over Wales could perhaps morph into a red. Yet that would be ridiculous given Farrell’s initial let-off by the all Australian DC for an incident that was far worse and looked far more aggressive and intentional. Lack of consistency is what fuelled the heated reaction to Farrell’s let-off.
The real hurdle that World Rugby faces though is the Farrell defence team. We’re talking big legal muscle the Rugby Football Union (RFU) have at their disposal. Which begs another question: will the RFU defend Billy Vunipola, who was red carded against Ireland, as vigorously as they did their captain given the outcry of the past week?
When legal bigwigs get involved it does become harder for a DC, and it is not new for a decision to fly in the face of what you might call the opinion of those who have what we might call more of a feel for the sport than for law. Perhaps the Proteas benefited from it when Kagiso Rabada was cleared for his bump on Australian captain Steve Smith in 2018.
It is easy to see how the law can find loopholes to exploit. It’s also easy to understand why that shouldn’t sit comfortably with World Rugby. Much of their recent legislation has been geared towards heading off the legal suits they face from former players suing them for what they have suffered after their rugby careers due to concussion.
The Farrell tackle on Taine Balsham has become such a talking point it would be remiss of a legal team not to use the slap on the wrist received by a serial offender to make the point that World Rugby turns a blind eye to dangerous play.
So it wasn’t surprising then that World Rugby took what for them is the rare step of appealing Farrell’s sentence. It was the anticipated reaction from an organisation that is becoming increasingly reactive rather than proactive.
Yet for all that, I take a slightly contrary view to the popular narrative over the Farrell incident. While it would be stretching it to suggest that Wallaby coach Eddie Jones was right to defend his former captain, he nonetheless did make a point that should be taken seriously: it is time more common sense is applied in adjudicating and judging foul play incidents.
Farrell’s indiscretion was a red card for all money. And it might even have been in a previous era in which there was more leniency on tackle height and what was considered dangerous. It was the kind of tackle that overseas commentators got heated up about when Butch James was wearing the Bok No 10.
But Jones is right when he says that the incidents should be viewed as less cut and dried and there should be room for counterargument and more leeway given to perpetrators for what so often stems from clumsiness or bad luck rather than malicious intent.
Willemse’s crime in Cardiff was that he got himself into an awkward position in his tackle attempt. Does that warrant him being suspended and possibly missing some World Cup games? Just as it was unfair on Ox Nché that was suspended earlier this year after what was really just an accidental clash of heads in a Sharks Champions Cup game.
There is an even better example of why I agree with Jones that more common sense should be applied. When Pieter-Steph du Toit was sent off against France last November it looked like he was pushed into the collision. Which is effectively what Farrell’s legal team argued, only in Du Toit’s case it was arguably more obvious.
This is not a defence of Farrell but an acknowledgment that while we might perceive the DC’s decision to be the wrong one, the process that led to the decision was the right one. The many red cards are ruining modern rugby and we could well be set for a blight of them at the World Cup unless common sense is applied.
Ideally though that common sense should be forthcoming during the match rather than when the result cannot be reversed. Too much on-field deliberation slows the game, so the bunker system should be fine-tuned to even allow yellow-carded players to be freed from the naughty chair if it is established the referee erred.
Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.