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Owen Doyle: World Rugby have a duty to make the sport safer for next generation

Caelan Doris will likely not be alone in suffering issues and more must be done

It's a rest weekend in the Six Nations, so I thought I'd open a time capsule.

It’s November 1978. Wales are just moments away from a famous victory against the touring All Blacks; the clock is ticking down. Leading by the risky margin of just two points, they have a lineout just outside their 22.

Land of Our Fathers is reverberating not only around the ground, but also around Cardiff’s deserted streets – every Welshman, woman and child not in the stadium is glued to a television somewhere, anywhere. They are, after all, about to witness a win as rare as gold dust on the pavements.

From his position at the tail of that lineout, the iconic All Black captain Graham Mourie surveys the scene. This team does not want to lose; it cannot lose.


Wales throw-in. Instantly, Andy Haden and Frank Oliver (for good measure) hurl themselves out of the lineout, it is an act of pure chicanery designed to persuade just one person that they were shoved. Haden is so "convincing" that he actually lands beside his own scrumhalf.

That one person, English referee Roger Quittenton, is duly hoodwinked and awards a penalty to Mourie's team. The kick is no bother to Brian McKechnie, and the All Blacks head for the dressing room – victors by a single point, 13-12.

A few weeks earlier, when Munster had famously become the only ones to beat his Grand Slam-winning team, Mourie had been sporting and very generous in his praise of that epic victory.

Despite the happenings in Cardiff, he is a true rugbyman with an intelligence around the game which is matched by few. He is also the very antithesis of a “yes-man”.

So, where is Mourie now?

Believe it or not, he is installed as chairman of World Rugby’s newly structured Match Officials Selection Committee (MOSC). It is a lot more than a good choice.

The committee also sees Joe Schmidt fully involved in his new role as director of rugby and high performance, with Frenchman Joël Jutge – another wise choice – leading the referees as head of elite match officials. That is a huge amount of knowledge in key roles.

Then there is Schmidt's High Performance Committee (HPC) which includes, without listing everybody, Gregor Townsend, Eddie Jones, Fabien Galthié, Steve Hansen, Jamie Roberts, Bryan Habana, Conrad Smith, David Nucifora and Rachael Burford.

Red card decisions

And there's a really worrying question here: do all members of the HPC accept the recent red card decisions ? Already Scotland coach Gregor Townsend has publicly criticised referee Matt Carley for dispatching Zander Fagerson. The answer appears then to be negative and, consequently, it's hard to understand that foul play strikes to the head are taken as seriously as World Rugby claim.

And, by the way, what is the position of the IRFU on these red cards, and has that view become the Nucifora view whatever it may be, and don’t we deserve to know?

Of more importance than anything is how dangerous play is dealt with at the professional level, as this feeds down to amateur clubs and schools

If this group are not singing from the same hymn sheet, or are arguing the toss on dangerous clearouts and foul play, then there is trouble ahead.

The referee play list, issued recently by Jutge, is transparent and unambiguous. I suspect that it will see an end to the undue influence of the more experienced referees in deciding how they should go about their business.

It must, too, ensure that the referee managers and referees in all competitions, such as the Premiership, Pro 14 and Super Rugby – and in the unions – adhere solidly to the play list. Previously, we have seen some individual solo runs which have been unhelpful and confusing.

The referee structure now carries so much clout I’d hazard a guess that few will say “I know better”.

Of more importance, however, than anything is how dangerous play is dealt with at the professional level, as this feeds down to amateur clubs and schools. Player actions, coaching techniques and refereeing are copied, particularly at schools, in their entirety.

Ah, the schools, the schools... Nucifora’s interest is in elite pathway schoolboy players, but there is a much wider picture. Is it the stance that professional players can knock seven bells out of each other, and if that happens in school it doesn’t really matter? And it is happening, as anyone who watched schools cup matches last year can vouch; and it does matter.

Brain issues

The next generation of players are now in school, as once were the current Irish team. So too was Caelan Doris, now sidelined indefinitely with brain issues, just as he was about to become a key player in Ireland's future.

Parents will be hoping and praying that their children will not face those same issues; but Doris will likely not be alone. “Hoping and praying” – the game must offer more.

If it doesn’t, the future is looking bleak right now – more and more will drop out and sooner.

The time capsule also recalled the rugby life and times of Syd Millar. An Ireland international prop forward, Millar toured three times with the Lions, playing in nine Tests. He then coached Ireland, and next the Lions on their unbeaten “Invincible” tour of South Africa in 1974. That tour was, of course, captained by his fellow Ballymena club man Willie John McBride.

And Millar wasn’t finished yet, making a lasting contribution to rugby across the world,culminating in his chairmanship of the International Rugby Board, now World Rugby. He’s worth listening to.

His unbending philosophy always was that those in charge are – no more, no less – the custodians of the game and have a duty to shape and improve it for the coming next generation. And keep it safe to play.

I’ll bet Graham Mourie will understand the necessity of Millar’s duty, and won’t be alone. Some others though, in high places, I doubt are too bothered. They need to be.

Owen Doyle is a former Test referee and former director of referees with the IRFU.