Owen Doyle: Henshaw can count himself lucky his Lions dream is still a reality

Hard to see why the laws were not applied fully to his tackle on Robert Baloucoune

Robbie Henshaw is tackled by Iain Henderson and Nick Timoney of Ulster during the Guinness Pro 14 Rainbow Cup game at the  RDS. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Robbie Henshaw is tackled by Iain Henderson and Nick Timoney of Ulster during the Guinness Pro 14 Rainbow Cup game at the RDS. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

 

Robbie Henshaw versus Robert Baloucoune. Let’s look at that tackle.

Leinster beat Ulster 21-17, that’s four points, but Henshaw’s try-saving tackle in the 30th minute denied Ulster at least five points. This was a typical attempted man and ball ‘take-out’ – if Baloucoune had got his pass away there were two unopposed team-mates outside him. It looked very much like they could have walked the ball over the tryline.

In actual time, it was strange that referee Mike Adamson or TMO Olly Hodges did not choose to review it, and it needed Iain Henderson to use (and, as it happened, to lose) his captain’s challenge to have it examined.

The TV replays clearly showed that there was no head-to-head contact, and that was the only thing the officials considered. Seemingly, they didn’t feel that they should consider any element of danger which clearly existed, Baloucoune’s head whiplashing violently.

Nor did they look at Henshaw’s arm which was around his opponent’s neck, as he rolled him over to complete the so-called tackle.

Knowing that he had to prevent the pass, Henshaw threw all caution to the wind, and went in very hard and upright, with zero attempt to bend into the tackle. By mere inches he avoided a very severe head-to-head collision, which would have resulted in a red card.

Neither he, nor Warren Gatland, would be sleeping easy if that had happened; and it was just a fluke that it didn’t. In the heat of the moment, it’s unlikely that Henshaw took time to think, but how stupid would he feel if he had put his Lions tour in jeopardy?

Henderson, very understandably, remonstrated with Adamson when he realised that no action was to be taken – “that can’t be a ‘nothing’, it was a very dangerous tackle on my player.” Impossible to disagree.

Ulster’s Robert Baloucoune is tackled by Jimmy O’Brien of Leinster during the Guinness Pro 14 Rainbow Cup game at the RDS. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Ulster’s Robert Baloucoune is tackled by Jimmy O’Brien of Leinster during the Guinness Pro 14 Rainbow Cup game at the RDS. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Let’s see what the law says. Under “Dangerous Play” it lists all of the various types of illegal tackles, and – of great interest to Henderson’s point – the section opens with the simple statement, “players must not do anything that is reckless or dangerous to others.” It goes on to tell us that dangerous tackling is not limited to tackles above the shoulder-line.

It is very hard to see why the laws of rugby were not applied in this case. While the officials did apply the head-contact protocol with great precision, it seemed, for them, that nothing else mattered.

I know well that there will be some who will see this as the correct procedure, but, if they are all as serious as they claim to be about player welfare, then the law must be applied. I suspect every parent in the land will have shuddered at the thought that this type of tackle is considered legal.

Yes, it requires referees to make a judgment, rather than obediently following a check-list; but, more and more, officials are not making these judgments, and are in danger of becoming just protocol processors.

How many observers would, or could, have objected to a decision that this was dangerous play, with a penalty kick, maybe a penalty try, and yellow card sanction?

There has been foul play, too, in other places recently. The much awaited final of the Heineken Cup will be played without the Toulouse captain, Julien Marchand, following his shoulder into the head of Bordeaux-Begles’ Roman Burros in the semi-final.

The major point of interest here was that he did not admit that his action constituted foul play, and he, and his legal team, argued long and hard that he should not be suspended; effectively claiming that the citing commissioner had got it wrong.

The defence of Marchand included a presentation by Dr Johan Merbalh, a doctor of biomechanics at Toulon University, which included slides and calculations concerning acceleration and kinetic energy. Talk about leaving no stone unturned.

Toulouse’s Julien Marchand comes up against Pablo Uberti of Bordeaux-Begles during the Heineken Champions Cup semi-final at Stade Ernest Wallon. Photograph: Dave Winter/Inpho
Toulouse’s Julien Marchand comes up against Pablo Uberti of Bordeaux-Begles during the Heineken Champions Cup semi-final at Stade Ernest Wallon. Photograph: Dave Winter/Inpho

The video of the incident was parsed and analysed ad infinitum, but the judicial panel correctly concluded that the citing should be upheld; and that the onus on the player, to prove that the citing was incorrect, had not been delivered.

The conclusion to the disciplinary decision (which runs to all of 14 pages), was a suspension of six weeks, mitigated to four. Hence, he will not be involved in Saturday’s Twickenham final against La Rochelle.

In the English Premiership, Harlequins’ Mike Brown very recently received his marching orders from Wayne Barnes for a stamp to the head of Wasps’ Tom Taylor. The RFU disciplinary panel decided that, while it was indeed a stamp, it was not deliberate. I suppose you can contrive to stamp your feet accidentally, but it seems somewhat far-fetched? The suspension was 10 weeks, mitigated to six; he was very fortunate it was not a lot more.

Peter Clohessy will undoubtedly look very askance at that, he received a six-month ban for something similar in Paris many years ago. But that was right, this was wrong.

Looking at all of the above, it seems that, if World Rugby want players to act with greater – or even, any – care, there’s a very strong argument for increasing the suspension thresholds. Far too often, the “soft” option of six weeks mitigated to three, is chosen by the judicial panels.

The reasons for mitigation are also in need of a serious overhaul; admitting to an offence, being remorseful and of good behaviour at the hearing, all add up to a hugely generous 50 per cent reduction in any suspension. Even a player’s charity work has been taken into consideration; as meritorious as that is, it’s hard to see what it has got to do with foul play on a rugby pitch.

So, as the Challenge Cup and Heineken Cup finals arrive, let’s all hope for no dangerous play, and for no controversy. May the best teams win, and may the referees be invisible.

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