Why rugby needs a standard punishment for illegal tackles

by Paul Thomas / 16 September, 2017

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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.

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