A red card ... A rugby incident ... The game is ruined ... The referee had no choice ... The contact is unintentional ... It wasn’t a tackle, no arms employed. That’s just a soupçon of the debate that raged in the immediate aftermath of an incident that did more than much of what preceded it in defining the outcome at the Aviva Stadium.
England fullback Freddie Steward was sent off after 38 minutes for making contact with his upper arm/elbow to the head of his Ireland counterpart Hugo Keenan. The Irish fullback was stooping, reaching down to try and regather a loose ball when he bore the brunt of the collision he never saw coming, and therefore for which he didn’t brace.
In real time it looked like a yellow card but when slowed down Steward’s actions warranted closer scrutiny. Following the intervention of the television match official Marius Jonker, referee Jaco Peyper and his assistants Ben O’Keeffe and Pierre Brousset reviewed the footage and had a conflab. What follows is rugby’s version of Catchphrase, ‘say what you see in the pictures’.
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The match officials eventually reach a conclusion, led by Peyper, that Steward had an option to do something other than he did and that was the damning bottom line that informed the referee’s decision to brandish a red card.
His final summation: “He [Steward] has a clear line of sight, he is upright in the contact and there is a high level of danger,” left him with little alternative, based on those observations, other than the conclusion he reached. It also defined the colour of the card.
England captain Owen Farrell was incredulous. “Red card, red card?” Peyper said something about ‘level of danger and no mitigation,’ the rest lost among multiple voices. There was nothing overtly malicious in the English fullback’s actions; it’s clumsy, it’s careless, it’s illegal and by the letter of the law it is a red card.
It is possible to feel sympathy for Steward and still reach the conclusion that his actions merited a red card. Peyper was right in everything he said. Steward was undone by the optics of his actions. He moved forward into the collision, appreciably with momentum and leaning forward, turned his shoulder towards the player and left his arms tucked by his side.
Therefore, he is not making or attempting to make a tackle, he is bracing for a collision, moving forward and leaning forward and then had the misfortune to clatter a player in the head, however inadvertent on his part. He immediately apologised and checked on his stricken opponent.
Keenan, who slumped to the ground and was attended by the Irish medical team, suffered a brain injury and was taken off to undergo a head injury assessment, which he failed, and was replaced by Jimmy O’Brien.
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World Rugby is ostensibly trying to make the game safer, trying to reduce head trauma, and there will be times when there are marginal calls in matches. What will serve the game best in the long-term is that in those cases the decision punishes the reckless, the careless, the clumsy, even when it can seem harsh. Intent is irrelevant. Players must be encouraged to change their behaviour or risk the consequences.
It’ll be interesting to see what punishment the disciplinary tribunal adjudicates. That too will send a message. The likelihood is that they will support the decision of the match officials.
Steward was slightly unfortunate but so too was Keenan, the innocent party in the incident and the victim of head trauma that ended his participation in the match. The match officials tried to do the right thing as they saw it and for that they should be commended not pilloried.