Monday, 17 October 2011

That tackle and the Red Card

As a referee, London Welsh wasn’t a happy place to be last Saturday, well most Saturdays actually. There can be no better place to watch a Wales international short of the the Millennium Stadium itself but as I saw the circumstances of the Warburton tackle I realised I would be justifying the action the referee for the rest of the day. My conversation with the Welsh RFU panel touch judge for the home game was the one exception.

My first instinct on seeing the replay was “oh dear, he is going to get cited and banned for the Final”, a yellow card was inevitable. It was a surprise that Rolland issued the red, not from the action of Warburton but on what referees typically do under such circumstances. A yellow and a retrospective ban is the form and is something we have seen 3-4 times in the RWC, but I’ve seen an Aussie red carded in 3N match for the same thing. The argument of consistency has been made and is a valid one but needs to be applied to the action of the other referees in the tournament. The resultant bans for player show that red cards should have issued at the time.

The IRB in their infinite wisdom has decided that the ‘tip tackle’ is supremely dangerous. It is covered by this;
Law 10.4(j) reads: Lifting a player from the ground and dropping or driving that player into the ground whilst that player’s feet are still off the ground such that the player’s head and/or upper body come into contact with the ground is dangerous play

The upshot is that if you take the player up, you bring him down safely; you do not drive him down (the extreme Melamu/O’Driscoll example), you do not think, “bugger I’ve tipped him I better let go of him now” (as Warbuton did) but you control how you bring him down (as Henson did to Matt Tait in 2005). Intent does not come into it, terrible things happen by accident and we must take the consequences.
What differentiates the referee’s actions on Saturday was he didn’t bottle the decision, he saw what he saw and knew how the IRB had directed him to act and he went to his pocket. The only mistake he made was not consulting his assistant referees, I doubt the outcome would be different but it would have bought himself time to make it clear in his mind and shared the responsibility for call.
Imagine a conversation like this.

REF, “this is what I saw, red 7 lifts blue of the ground and through the horizontal and drops him, he fails to bring him to ground in a safe manner, a dangerous tackle. Do you have anything to add?”
AR1 “nothing to add, it was a dangerous tackle,”
REF, “I am going to award a penalty and issue a red card to red 7”
AR1 “agreed”

The whole world knows what the Ref is thinking, the Ref has a few extra seconds to think about the consequences of what he is doing and he gets the moral support from the touch line. If the AR disagrees him, he will not contradict the Ref, there are code words used, if he thinks otherwise then he could have replied, “ nothing to add, it was a reckless tackle.” Reckless verses dangerous tackle communicated a suggested downgrade to yellow but the referee still has the option to keep it red.

The first responsibility of the referee in any game is the safety of the player and with high momentum impacts between flesh, bone and earth there is a lot that can go wrong. As players and spectators we all love the “ooff” factor of a big hit is exciting and part of the psychological ascendancy that a team looks to establish, however, we all want players to walk off the field. “Dominate do not destroy” is part of my front row talk and it applies to all players, who must have a responsibility to fellow players for their safety.

Much of the criticism of Alain Rolland has been that he has ruined the tournament, Wales were a better team than France and almost certainly would have won with 15 men, thus making a much more competitive final. However, the referee is tasked with managing that game, nothing more. He must make it safe, he must make it fair and he must must punish dangerous play within the parameters he has been given. What ever the consequences for Wales, Alain Rolland full-filled this function and throughout the rest of the game I found him to fair and consistent. Wales did enough to win that match, a little better luck with kicks and we would have still be looking forward to a Final on Sunday.

The broader topic must be how we want the game to be managed by the IRB. Many of the same people saying the red card spoilt the game and the tournament were bellowing for Mealamu to have been red carded for the O’Driscoll tackle. As fans we must be consistent, if we accept that red cards are to be a part of the game we can not apply them selectively. Perhaps red cards should only be used for a foul play; punching, gouging, head butts, ‘genuine’ spear tackles? The latter will keep the debate open on where the line should be drawn.


John said...

Had similar conversations at LW. In many of them the words "intent" and "not malicious" came up. I think it is a big ask to expect referees to judge not only what they saw but what the player was thinking.

Nice thoughtful piece.

johnlholden said...

Good blog, Dai. For me the act of lifting a player's legs above his head in the tackle is reckless (YC). If he then drops him from anything much above knee height, or throws him down, that's dangerous.

Clearly the disciplinary panel didn't think that Sam Warburton's red card was sufficient on its own. Just think of the uproar if Alain Rolland had chickened out and then Wales had gone on to win with 15 men. Great shame, but a referee ceases to be impartial if he bends the rules for the occasion.