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Owen Doyle: Johnny Sexton has learned his lesson; rugby’s regulations need a change too

It makes no sense to wait for a serious injury before implementing a meaningful deterrent to foul play

This weekend’s Rugby World Cup meeting with Scotland is basically Ireland’s first knockout match. But let’s start by looking back at an intriguing little moment in the match against South Africa.

“Thanks for your help, Johnny,” were the words uttered by referee Ben O’Keefe as the teams left the pitch at half-time. The dialogue between the referee and Johnny Sexton was well measured, even friendly. It points to a transformation of attitude by the skipper following his “discussion” with the officials after the Champions Cup final. Fair dues, he got it spot on.

This Scotland game will be a huge match for Nic Berry and a good relationship with him is essential. Nobody likes being shouted at and referees are no different.

The most notorious shout, well worthwhile recalling, was that of England captain Martin Johnson appealing for a scrum penalty in the 2003 World Cup final. He didn’t get it and the scrum was re-set. When that too collapsed, the penalty came from referee Andre Watson all right. But it certainly wasn’t the decision that Johnson wanted – it was awarded against England, forcing the match into extra time.


Then, with less than 30 seconds of that added time remaining, the sides were level, 17-17. Sudden death (next score wins) was beckoning, when Jonny Wilkinson drop-kicked for goal. That kick, the stuff of legend, won the match for England, and, at the same time, saved Watson from a torrid post-match analysis.

Referees appreciate captains whose queries are reasonable in tone and who keep the rest of their players quiet. This approach shows an understanding that referees also have performances to deliver and helps them feel comfortable as they go about their business. Even if a captain thinks the performance is awful, it’s a bad idea to let the referee know.

In terms of Berry, the Irish coaches are certain to examine closely his scrum and breakdown work to date and may want some prematch clarifications. Andy Farrell will want fast ruck ball and a good scrum – Scotland are adept at disrupting both. Ireland’s tackle-discipline continues to be good, showing that it can be done and they will need to maintain it. It was Berry who dismissed (correctly) Bundee Aki in the last World Cup.

The judicial panels, meanwhile, have been kept busy. Johan Deysel, Namibia’s captain, received a five-week suspension for his hit on Antoine Dupont. The sentence started at 12 weeks but the player’s clean record meant that he qualified for all the reductions on offer.

Some have opined that it’s easy to target the smaller nations with a high sentence. But the panel is obliged to consider the level of injury in arriving at their starting point. So, in accordance with the regulations, the men on the bench got it right.

However, these regulations need a complete review. It seems counterproductive to wait for a serious injury before implementing a sanction that is meaningful in terms of deterrence.

Namibian coach Allister Coetzee has had a real problem with his team’s discipline. As well as the Dupont incident, two more of his players went to the bunker for hits to the head in their midweek match against Uruguay. The captain, Tijiuee Uanivi, followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, but was allowed to return when his yellow was not upgraded.

But the bunker did go to red for Uanivi’s team-mate, Desiderius Sethie, although I found it hard to see much difference in the danger level of these two hits. The citing commissioner thought something similar, so Uanivi will face the music after all. Although they finished with 14 players, they really should have been down to 13.

Namibia head for home having completed their four pool matches in 19 days, the toughest timetable of all the teams and it’s hard not to be sympathetic in that respect. However, in terms of their contribution to foul play, they are unlikely to be missed.

If I told you that World Rugby resourced Tier 2 teams with former international referees to ensure good technique you probably wouldn’t believe it, based on what we’ve seen. Nevertheless, it is true. It’s also hard to believe that apparently no lessons have been learned from last time, in Japan, when the number of red cards reached an unprecedented eight.

The World Cup is rugby’s opportunity to showcase the game, but instead it’s image is suffering a serious hit of its own. Whatever about the inconsistent bunker, the match officials and TMO are not to blame. They are delivering what the protocols demand, and have no intention of letting up. It’s the coaches who have to look in the mirror.

The future of the sport is by no means guaranteed. Parents, too, are watching and many are uncomfortable with what they are seeing. A great sport for young people gets all too serious, all too often.