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Gerry Thornley: Time to address stampeding elephant in rugby room

World Rugby has vowed to tackle high hits, but is there a different rule for the All Blacks?

Head coach Steve Handsen defends New Zealand discipline as the All Blacks concede 14 penalties to Ireland's four at the Aviva Stadium

As usual, in the eyes of much of the New Zealand media and of course the team themselves, the All Blacks can seemingly do no wrong. The reaction in Ireland to the events of Saturday's brutish bruiser in the Aviva Stadium has been labelled "bitter" and even "hysterical" and, what's more, in "true Irish fashion".

Well, at least now we know what some of them think of us. Having the temerity to beat the All Blacks was one thing. Complaining about some of the cheap shots and high hits seemingly quite another. But if the NZ media are bleating about others bleating about the All Blacks, then it probably means we’re on the right track.

For the record, it wasn't just the Irish media. The Daily Telegraph heading yesterday morning read: "Brutal All Blacks claim win but lose high moral ground." Its report on the game said "an unbecoming brutishness was unleashed", adding "the only surprise" being that a mere two of the All Blacks' players were cited after "New Zealand got away with such thuggery". The Guardian also wrote that "the All Blacks were incredibly lucky to get away with just two yellow cards" and concurred with the Telegraph that Fekitoa's yellow "could easily have been red".

From an Australian perspective, albeit with a decidedly Irish tinge, Matt Williams maintains that the All Blacks have been refereed differently from everyone else for years.




Second Captains

yesterday, Williams cited statistics, to coin a phrase, from three years ago in which he claimed that “for every 11 penalties they conceded South Africa got a yellow card. For every 12 penalties Australia conceded, they got a yellow card. For every 43 penalties New Zealand conceded, they got a yellow card.”

Let's stick to some facts from the Chicago and Dublin games for a moment. In those two games, the All Blacks conceded 26 penalties to eight, had three players yellow-carded and two formally cited arising from up to 11 incidents in Saturday's game which were brought to the attention of the match-citing commissioner, the New Zealand-born Canadian resident Bruce Kuklinski. No Irish player was yellow-carded or cited.

The high hits by Sam Cane, Israel Dagg, Dane Coles and Malakai Fekitoa on Robbie Henshaw, CJ Stander, Conor Murray and Simon Zebo were deemed merely worthy of two penalties and one yellow card in the case of Fekitoa, and two citings. This is all the more risible given World Rugby issued a decree on the subject only 10 days previously.

World Rugby’s press release stated: “Referees have been told to be strict when it comes to tackles, charges, strikes or kicks that make contact above the shoulder line and to favour firm sanctions for offenders, up to and including red cards for severe examples.”

The World Rugby Match Officials Selection Committee chairman Anthony Buchanan said: "World Rugby's number one priority is player welfare and the laws of the game clearly state that the necks and heads of players are sacrosanct."

Words are cheap.


Arguably the worst was Fekitoa’s given he tracked and lined up Zebo for several strides and seconds before swinging his right arm dangerously high into contact with Zebo’s neck/head.

Even regardless of World Rugby's edict, Jaco Peyper failed in his basic duty of protecting player welfare. Admittedly, it was a tough match to referee, and he was not helped by his TMO, Jon Mason of Wales.

Take the case of Cane’s collision with Henshaw, when freeze frames and pictures clearly show Cane’s arm is dead straight at the point his right shoulder impacts with Henshaw’s jaw, knocking him unconscious.

“Jon, I’m not sure that there’s arms in that tackle,” says Peyper.

“Yeah, we’ll have a look at that,” says Mason.

Sky's co-commentator, Alan Quinlan, notes: "There do not appear to be arms in that collision." He adds: "And that's potentially a red card with the new regulations."

Peyper asks Mason: “Is he trying to wrap or not?”

“Yes, he is,” responds Mason.

“So is he trying to wrap?” asks Peyper again.

“He’s trying to wrap there, yea,” maintains Mason.

“Going into the contact, is it high?” asks Peyper.

“The actual contact with the arms is around the shoulder,” says Mason.

“So you would not suggest a penalty?” asks Peyper.

“I would suggest a penalty, but nothing more,” says Mason.

Sky commentator Mark Robson asks Quinlan: "Is that not against the directive?"

“That’s completely against the directive,” says Quinlan.


Of course, referees’ careers are at stake too, and it’s worth remembering how long after New Zealand’s 2007 World Cup quarter-final defeat to France before

Wayne Barnes

was allowed referee one of their games again. Apparently, the performance of Saturday’s officials is being reviewed by former referee

Chris White


It’s a shame that the brutality of Saturday’s test has overshadowed its epic quality, and indeed the brilliance of this All Blacks team. In 13 Test matches this season they have scored 76 tries. Their brand of running rugby, with Beauden Barrett creator-in-chief, has been a joy to behold. They are a truly wonderful team, who extracted some of Ireland’s very best rugby.

As another, laughable, aside, in its statement of November 11th, World Rugby also noted: “Match officials have also been reminded to watch out for players standing ahead of the hindmost foot at rucks.” Well, Peyper and his officials had another cracker in that department too.

More seriously, rugby has a major, well-documented issue with concussion, which in part emanates from a culture which celebrates “hits”. Until such time as referees and the governing body actually follow through on their edicts and outlaw them, it will continue to do so. Given its audience, it has to start with high-profile games such as last Saturday’s. Otherwise there will be a catastrophic injury.