The weekend provided a mixed bag of results for Irish rugby. While Munster overcame Toulouse and progressed to the semi finals, both Ulster and Leinster were eliminated. However, the weekend’s biggest talking point stemmed from the Ulster – Saracens game at Ravenhill. Jerome Garces’ decision to send off Ulster fullback Jared Payne in the 5th minute has divided opinions in the rugby world. I actually missed the opening minutes of the game and switched on just in time to see Garces produce the red card. I was obviously gutted for Ulster. In rugby – perhaps more so than soccer or GAA -a red card leaves the depleted side with a huge uphill task. Coming as it did, in the 5th minute of the game immediately switched Ulster from strong favourites to serious underdogs. Mark Anscombe’s men deserve enormous credit for keeping the game in the balance right up to the final whistle but even that incredible performance has failed to remove the red card decision from the spotlight. I didn’t get a chance to see the incident until half time. On initial viewing I thought it worthy of at least a yellow but that perhaps a red card was a little harsh. I have viewed the Payne incident a couple of times since the game and, removed from the disappointment and emotion of the game, I have come to the conclusion that the referee got it right.
The aerial dual is one of the finest spectacles in rugby. Seeing two players, often at high speeds, competing for a high ball is a marriage of athleticism and bravery. It can be thrilling but it can also be incredibly dangerous, even when both players stay within the bounds of the rule book. Alex Goode was not the only player to be injured gathering a high ball this weekend. On Friday, during the first 90 seconds of the Super XV game between the Melbourne Rebels and the Highlanders, the Rebels Bryce Hegarty and Highlanders wing Richard Buckman both competed for a high ball. Hegarty landed awkwardly, banging his head off the turf as he landed and was substituted having failed a concussion test. The challenge was legitimate, neither side were penalised, and play restarted with a scrum following a knock on. What this incident highlighted was that even when both players stay within the bounds of the law, the aerial duel has potential for severe injury. The question then arises as to what separates a legitimate challenge for the ball from a potential yellow or even red card offence?
The obvious place to start is the laws of the game. In this case the pertinent law is Law 10 which governs foul play. Specifically, Law 10.4 (i) which states:
“Tackling the jumper in the air. A player must not tackle nor tap, push or pull the foot or feet of an opponent jumping for the ball in a lineout or in open play.
Sanction: Penalty kick”
The sanction mentioned refers to the sanction to be imposed against a team, individual player sanctions are dealt with by Law 10.5
“Any player who infringes any part of the Foul Play Law must be admonished, or cautioned and temporarily suspended for a period of ten minutes’ playing time, or sent-off.”
Whilst the Payne incident clearly meets the criteria necessary to fall under the definition of “tackling the jumper in the air”, the issue of sanctions against an offending player is not specific and is left open to the referee’s interpretation. I am not aware of any IRB clarification issued on this subject, like the one issued in relation to the infamous “tip tackle”. So the law as it stands leaves the choice of player sanction to the individual referee, but does include the possibility of a straight red card.
It is worth examining the IRB directive in relation to the tip tackle which was first issued in 2009. This directive recommended the use of a red card in the case of a player being speared into the ground or “dropped to the ground from a height with no regard for the player’s safety”. Although issued in 2009, this directive became topical in the aftermath of Alain Rolland’s controversial decision to show Welsh captain Sam Warburton a red card for a tip tackle during the 2011 Rugby World Cup semi-final.
Having already established that Payne’s actions fall under the definition of “tackling the jumper in the air”, I think it’s also fair to say that Payne’s collision resulted in Goode being “dropped to the ground from a height”.
In the aftermath of the incident, Ulster captain Johann Muller could be heard appealing to the referee on Payne’s behalf that the Ulster fullback had eyes only for the ball. While this is clearly true, and nobody would suggest any form of malicious intent on Payne’s part, it does not serve to excuse his actions. The fact remains that his actions were reckless and directly endangered the health of an opponent. His intentions should only become relevant when discussing a potential ban. The intentions of his actions have no bearing on the consequences. For the sake of argument lets imagine Payne had clearly and deliberately taken Goode out in the air and all other aspects of the incident remained the same i.e. Goode’s spin in the air and dangerous landing. In this case nobody would question the referee’s choice of a red card despite it being no more dangerous than what actually transpired.
There is also the issue of a player’s responsibility. The following is taken from the foreword of the IRB Laws of the game:
“Rugby Union is a sport which involves physical contact. Any sport involving physical contact has inherent dangers. It is very important that players play the Game in accordance with the Laws of the Game and be mindful of the safety of themselves and others.
It is the responsibility of players to ensure that they are physically and technically prepared in a manner which enables them to play the Game, comply with the Laws of the Game and participate in accordance with safe practices”
Every player who takes part has a responsibility to themselves, and to their fellow players, to be mindful of player safety. Jared Payne failed to uphold his responsibility in this respect. He ran blindly after the ball with little or no thought to the risks to himself or to his opposite number. In fact, as a full back himself the likelihood of Goode coming to take the high ball should surely have been in his mind as he chased the kick. It is important to note that the directive on the tip tackle specifically includes the terms “no regard for the player’s safety”. Had Payne shown some regard for Goode’s safety he could have been spared the red card. Had he – even at the last second – observed Goode, attempted to slow or avoid the collision or failing that, even attempted to catch Goode and control the collision to a certain extent then a yellow card would have been the more appropriate choice. But as it is his actions showed no regard for Goode’s safety and, despite the lack of intent, did result in Goode being dropped to the ground from a height. It is just good fortune that Goode was spared serious injury.
The reaction on twitter in the immediate aftermath of the incident was also interesting. Predictably most Ulster and Irish rugby fans felt the decision was harsh to say the least. However, I found the reaction of current and ex-players quite telling. From what I have seen, of the players to publicly comment on the matter, the overwhelming majority were in support of the decision. It is the players who have the greatest understanding of the risks involved in the game and the fact that few, if any, have come out publicly to criticise the decision suggests most feel, in the interest of player safety, the referee made the right call.
Where Ulster can feel aggrieved is the inconsistency in refereeing this aspect of the game. I am of the opinion that an incident like the one on Saturday should be treated as a red card offence. A lot of people seem to struggle with the fact that dangerous play and malicious intent are not necessarily linked. An incident does not have to involve intent to merit being labelled dangerous play. The potential for a serious neck injury from an incident like that cannot be ignored. In order for players to continue to challenge for the ball in the air, they must feel safe in the knowledge that they are afforded every possible protection from the officials. I would like to see the ERC and the IRB come out with a strong message of support for this decision and a directive that similar incidents should also be dealt with by a red card. The Sam Warburton incident set a precedent for the tip tackle. At the time it was a controversial decision and criticised by many, particularly in Wales. However, three years on, any player who does perform a tip tackle now knows they are risking a sending off. I would like to see this incident set a similar precedent for tackling in the air so that players can continue to contest for the ball in aerial duels without fear that a player on the ground can take their legs out and send them crashing to the ground head first.
Michael McCarthy, Pundit Arena.