Rugby World Cup: Mixed messages on high tackles doing rugby no favours

Referees are taking the brunt but coaches and players must accept responsibility also

On the very first re-viewing of John Quill's 70th-minute shoulder charge on Owen Farrell on Thursday in Kobe, referee Nic Berry probably had his mind made up, and for everybody watching there was a grim inevitability about the USA flanker's ensuing red card.

Had there even been the slightest doubt about Quill’s high hit meriting a sending off, the accumulation of incidents in matches beforehand had sealed his fate anyway.

World Rugby had effectively admitted the New Zealand referee Ben O'Keefe and his TMO Rowan Kitt of England erred in not brandishing Reece Hodge with a red card for his high hit on Fijian flanker Peceli Yato in Australia's opening match when subsequently citing Hodge and suspending him for three weeks.

Within hours of World Rugby's extraordinary statement on Tuesday which criticised the performances of their own officials over the curse of the opening eight matches, in match nine both Rey Lee-Lo and Motu Matu'u were sent to the sin bin for high tackles on Russia captain Vasily Artemyev. The pair have since been cited as well.


The England centre Piers Francis escaped punishment of any kind for his high hit, literally from the kick-off, on the Eagles’ fullback Will Hooley, although he has since been cited too.

But when Berry reviewed the incident involving the Youghal-born, former Dolphin flanker Quill, he was unequivocal in speaking to his TMO Ben Skeen of New Zealand.

“I tell you what I’ve seen, ‘6’ white has made no attempt to use the arms. It’s a direct shoulder to the head. There’s high danger. There’s no mitigation, so it’s going to be a red card against white ‘7’, sorry.”

Skeen concurred. “Yes, it’s number ‘7’ and all of those facts are correct.”

Berry, whose own playing career was cut short by concussion, approached the USA captain, Blaine Scully, and called over Quill, holding up seven fingers.

Scully briefly pitched a forlorn case on Quill’s behalf. “He was trying to pull out of it.”

“No, I disagree,” said Berry, who brandished a red card.

Quill thus became the first player at this World Cup to be sent off, but that dubious honour should have been Hodge’s.

Michael Cheika had expressed his "disappointment" with the Fijian management in not forewarning the Wallabies in their post-match get together that they would be bringing the incident to the attention of the citing commissions. But that's hardly the point. Besides, most likely they were scared of provoking his famous temper.

Last Wednesday in Tokyo, an independent disciplinary committee, chaired by Nigel Hampton QC (New Zealand), along with former international coach Frank Hadden (Scotland) and former referee José Luis Rolandi (Argentina), viewed all the available angles of the incident and deemed Hodge's hit was an act of foul play and warranted a red card in line with the high tackle sanction framework.

The suspension entry point of six weeks was reduced to three on account of Hodge’s previously exemplary disciplinary record and behaviour at the hearing, and certainly a six-week ban is all the more severe coming in the middle of a quadrennial World Cup than at any other point in between.

Even so, the debate raged.

A "completely baffled" Drew Mitchell, Tim Horan, Will Carling, Jonathan Davies and Clive Woodward were among those who decreed Hodge's hit merited a yellow card only.

“Happens so quickly players cannot possibly react to every situation,” tweeted Woodward.

He added: “Has any of those making this decision ever tried stopping someone as powerful as Yato by wrapping their arms around him? Good luck if you try that!”

Speaking following Eir Sport's coverage of the England-USA game, Peter Stringer said Woodward's comments were "just completely wrong".

“I found it bizarre for him to say that if a guy is strong and powerful, it’s not possible to wrap your arms around him, and best of luck to the guy that tries to do that. You still can’t take the law into your own hands. The laws of the game are set out by World Rugby and you have to stick by that.

“In my mind, there’s no arguing that it’s a red card. Find a way, no matter what way it is, legally, to bring a guy down. You go low, you drop your body height.

“You still have to make an attempt the way we all do as kids and the way you teach people to go at the right body height. You can’t say that because a guy is running at you and he’s more powerful that it gives you licence to tackle as you want. That just cannot be the way.”

Sports scientist Ross Tucker, who helped World Rugby come up with the new framework launched this year to sanction high and dangerous tackles, said on Twitter that by the new checklist Hodge's tackle was a straight red card. Former international referee Jonathan Kaplan said he had "no idea" why Hodge wasn't shown a red card.

In truth, match officials could have gone further in other incidents at this World Cup.

Within hours of subsequently criticising the match officials performances, Romain Poite was reviewing Lee-Lo's high hit on Artemyev, the one-time Blackrock College, DLSP and Leinster academy flyer.

Speaking to his TMO, Graham Hughes of England, Poite said: "Is it a foul play? Yes. Is it a high tackle? Yes, it is. Is there direct contact on the head? Yes, there is contact on the head."

“Yes,” agreed Hughes.

“Which means it’s a red card against blue player,” Poite deduced.

Whereupon, Hughes intervened: “However, red is dipping.”

Poite duly changed his mind, informing Lee-Lo: “The red player is falling down a little bit. That is the mitigating factor.”

Poite came to a similar decision when the Samoan hooker Matu’u seemed to cause his own concussion with a dangerous and reckless flying high hit on Artemyev.

This is a negligible mitigating factor, but is the crux of the problem in WR's framework. The Russian fullback had dipped long before Matu'u had lined him up, and as Gareth Thomas has pointed out "you run around a rugby pitch trying to make yourself as small as possible, not as big as possible".

As the former Test referee and IRFU referees' chief Owen Doyle has said in these pages, all of this is as much of a coach and player issue as it is for match officials.

The committee’s report on Hodge’s hearing concluded: “The player conceded that he had no effective knowledge of WR’s ‘Decision making framework for high tackles’.”

However, in response, Cheika was in full “us against everyone else” mode, saying Hodge was nervous, the incident wasn’t worthy of a penalty and commenting: “The framework is for referees, not the players, and used to decide whether there are red or yellow cards in a game. In my view, the officials in this tournament are using that framework very well.

“Second, our players are coached to tackle around the middle where they can dislodge the ball. We do not need the framework to tell them how to tackle. I am not sure where that is coming from and I do not know why it was put in the judgment.”

Ultimately though, the bottom line in all of this, as Stringer stressed, is to make the game safer, starting with young kids learning correct and safe tackle techniques from mini rugby upwards. And as the sport’s flagship tournament, the best examples have to be set here in Japan.