Gerry Thornley: Powers that be have duty of care to protect players

Strict clamp down on dangerous tackling at World Cup must be implemented at all levels

When the International Rugby Board and the Rugby World Cup organisers clamped down on high hits and clearing out around the neck at rucks during the 2015 tournament, at times they appeared to be going overboard in making the game so sanitised. No doubt they were mindful of the game's image in front of the watching millions and utilising the four-yearly competition as a benchmark. Fair enough. Alas, the Six Nations is seemingly not held in the same bracket. It looks like we're almost back to "anything goes" again.

The game's governing body and major tournament organisers have a duty of care not only to the participants but in presenting the game in the correct light and also establishing benchmarks for the sport all the way down to grassroots level. The World Cup and after that the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship set the tone in how the game is played, how laws are applied and what is permissible.

Viewed in that light, the referee for the recent France v Ireland game, Jaco Peyper of South Africa, and his TMO George Ayoub of Australia fell way short of the standards required with regard to Yoann Maestri's late shoulder into Johnny Sexton and Guilhel Guirado's flying high hit on Dave Kearney.

In the first instance, Peyper could not have been closer to the incident. Yet without recourse to the TMO, and without any prompting from Ayoub, Peyper deemed the foul worthy of no more than a penalty. The Six Nations duly issued a warning to the French lock on the ensuing Monday at the behest of the independent citing commission, who declared that his act of foul play “fell just short” of warranting a red card. Translated, this means Peyper should have brandished a yellow card to the French lock.


However, that Guirado received no sanction whatsoever, either at the time or subsequently, for his high tackle on Kearney beggared belief. Talking to people involved in the medical welfare of the game, they were simply appalled. The game, first and foremost, has a duty of care toward its players never mind how the game is conveyed.

Paul Minto, of the Scottish Rugby Union, was the citing commissioner for the game. Apparently the TMO had issues with getting replays from the French host broadcasters.

Granted, also, slow-motion replays always make the impact of collisions appear worse. It’s why they are replayed to a musical soundtrack at the end of programmes. But any parent in the world looking at that “hit” would be reluctant to allow their kids to play rugby.

This was compounded by the lack of any action from the independent citing commissioner, and was in stark contrast to the vigilance of the authorities at the World Cup. Then, the organisers had no qualms about hanging Craig Joubert out to dry for an erroneous decision regarding the technicalities of an offside law. Eh, priorities?

High moral ground

In this example though, the citing commissioner, the TMO and the match referee effectively said that Guirado’s high hit was permissible. Of course, it is easy to adopt the high moral ground when the victim is an Irish player and the perpetrator is from another country.

Player welfare has never been more topical, perhaps in Ireland more so than anywhere right now. Amid a relative lack of hard, scientific evidence, it is also easy to over-react at what is, as the former Ireland team doctor Dr Eanna Falvey noted, this season's current "snapshot".

Indeed, the latest RFU Injury Surveillance Report from last year – which has been produced annually since 2002 and provides the most detailed database of its kind on injuries in professional rugby – claims that the injury rate has remained relatively consistent at 30 per cent of squads amongst the 12 Premiership clubs and the England senior team.

The current toll amongst the four provinces and the Ireland squad looks to be around that mark. Due to player management, Irish rugby has seemingly managed to keep below that 30 per cent threshold – until this season.

What the RFU annual study has also demonstrated is that the severity of injuries has worsened. In the 2012/’13 season, the average injury caused a player to miss 26 days’ training and playing. In 2002, when the project began, the average severity was 16 days.

Again, in the absence of hard scientific evidence, the advent of higher hits (a consequence in part of rugby league-style tackling and defending designed to prevent offloads) has probably contributed to the increased severity of injuries. Ditto the increased preponderance of reported concussions, even if heightened awareness amongst players, coaches, medical staff and the media (where before this was minimal) is a contributory factor.

The game has a duty to outlaw the kind of high hits which have probably ended Dave Kearney’s season, an altogether more dangerous “tackle” than even the shot by Maestri, never mind Seán O’Brien punch to Pascal Papé’s stomach which led to a one-match ban for the World Cup quarter-final – akin to a much longer ban in a regular club league campaign.

Risk of injuries


World Rugby Match Official Selection Committee

, chaired by

John Jeffrey

, comprises former elite referees

Lyndon Bray


Andrew Cole


Donal Courtney

(European Rugby Champions Cup),

Clayton Thomas

(Six Nations) and World Rugby High Performance Match Officials Manager

Joel Jutge


The committee meets four times a year and makes selections for the next international window with all performances reviewed in advance of selection. When it next convenes, the committee has an obligation to reduce the risk of injuries resulting from high hits and by rights should highlight the “tackle” on Kearney.

Otherwise, the severity of injuries will continue to worsen, and young kids, along with their parents, will simply be less inclined to play the game.

And who could blame them?