Why rugby needs a standard punishment for illegal tackles

by Paul Thomas / 16 September, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Rugby

Sonny Bill Williams is shown the red card by referee Jerome Garces during the Lions Tour in July. Photo/Getty Images

The various punishments handed out for illegal tackles make a mockery of refereeing consistency.

I was living in Sydney in the early 1990s when the price of Penfolds’ flagship wine, Grange Hermitage, hit $500. That’s $500 a bottle. I knew there were some Old World wines from tiny plots and certain vintages that cost the Earth, but paying that much for a locally produced, comparatively readily available blended wine seemed irrational.

I put that proposition to a wine writer. He reckoned you’d have to be out of your mind to spend $500 on a bottle of Grange when you could get a case, if not two cases, of comparable shiraz for the same outlay. (The price gap between Grange and the next level has since narrowed.)

The anomaly of radically different values being assigned to barely distinguishable commodities came to mind when trying to make sense of rugby’s treatment of high tackles. Good luck to Penfolds, by the way: in commerce, a thing is worth what someone is prepared to pay for it, and Grange is a triumph of branding and mystique creation.

You would have thought, however, that consistency would be the guiding principle in officiating and judicial review. Consider the following.

In a no-arms tackle, Sonny Bill Williams’s shoulder caught British and Irish Lions wing Anthony Watson’s head. Williams was sent off. French referee Jérôme Garcès felt he had no choice but to reach for the red card: “I have to protect the player.” Watson passed a concussion test and saw out the game. Even though the judicial committee deemed Williams’s action “reckless but not intentional”, he was banned for a further four games.

In the same match, Lions prop Mako Vunipola drove his shoulder into Beauden Barrett’s jaw, minutes after being penalised for a late tackle on the same player. There was arguably more malicious intent in Vunipola’s act than Williams’s: Watson was on his feet and had the ball; Barrett was on the ground and didn’t have the ball. Vunipola got 10 minutes in the bin and that was the end of it.

Also in that match, Lions flanker Sean O’Brien knocked out All Black wing Waisake Naholo with a swinging arm to the head. Although Naholo passed a concussion test, the All Black coaching staff took the precaution of not sending him back into the fray or selecting him for the next game. Garcès was able to review the incident on the big screen but took no action; the citing commissioner, though, felt the incident met the red-card threshold. After a judicial hearing, the committee that banned Williams decided the Naholo knockout was accidental and cleared O’Brien to play the following week.

In Super Rugby’s quarter-finals, three Kiwi players were yellow-carded for making contact with the head. Chiefs flanker Sam Cane copped it after the referee, who initially wasn’t even minded to award a penalty, was twice overruled by the television match official. Chiefs coach Dave Rennie’s take was “we’ve got to accept the fact that there might have been shoulder contact with the jaw”. After Highlanders flanker Liam Squire was yellow-carded for a swinging arm that bounced off Crusader Richie Mo‘unga’s shoulder onto the back of his head, Highlanders coach Tony Brown went into Trump-tweet mode: “Pretty weak. Definitely not a yellow card. There was no real intent. Poor.”

In each case, contact was made with the head to similar effect, but one player is banned for 375 minutes, some spend 10 minutes in the bin and one gets off scot-free. Coaches keep saying all they want is consistency. They might as well wish for the moon.

This article was first published in the August 12, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


The art and soul of Te Papa
88235 2018-03-17 00:00:00Z Arts

The art and soul of Te Papa

by Sally Blundell

Twenty years ago, Te Papa opened with little space to exhibit its national art collection. Now, it is showing off its new dedicated art space.

Read more
Does chewing more help curb your appetite?
87918 2018-03-17 00:00:00Z Nutrition

Does chewing more help curb your appetite?

by Jennifer Bowden

Our appetite-control hormones are affected by chewing, according to some studies, whereas others show no change.

Read more
How Auckland rapper JessB went from face in the crowd to queen of the stage
88396 2018-03-16 09:42:00Z Music

How Auckland rapper JessB went from face in the cr…

by Vomle Springford

Auckland rapper JessB is making her mark in the male-dominated hip-hop scene with the release of her much-anticipated debut EP Bloom.

Read more
Defence Minister Ron Mark defends his use of military aircraft
88389 2018-03-16 07:02:40Z Politics

Defence Minister Ron Mark defends his use of milit…

by Craig McCulloch

Defence Minister Ron Mark is denying any inappropriate use of military aircraft after revelations he has used them to fly to and from home.

Read more
Corrections moves sex offenders from lodge close to school
88387 2018-03-16 06:55:59Z Crime

Corrections moves sex offenders from lodge close t…

by Eva Corlett and Sally Murphy

Corrections says it will review its processes after it was discovered 11 sex offenders were living less than a kilometre away from an Auckland school.

Read more
Rodney Walshe: One of Ireland's best-known exports to New Zealand
88222 2018-03-16 00:00:00Z Profiles

Rodney Walshe: One of Ireland's best-known exports…

by Clare de Lore

When he arrived here from Ireland in 1960, Rodney Walshe had nothing but a suit and the gift of the gab. They took him a long way.

Read more
Derek Handley talks Trump, business and coming home
88378 2018-03-16 00:00:00Z Profiles

Derek Handley talks Trump, business and coming hom…

by Clare de Lore

The nomadic New Zealander who’s set his sights on space travel is no longer an alien.

Read more
How Lisa Walker went from teenage Wellington punk to celebrated jeweller
88263 2018-03-16 00:00:00Z What's on

How Lisa Walker went from teenage Wellington punk …

by Mike White

The Anarchist jeweller has a remarkable show at new Te Papa gallery, Toi Art.

Read more