Loose Pass

Date published: October 10 2017

This week we will be mostly concerning ourselves with high hits, reversed decisions and an astonishing literary debut from Rob Andrew.

Drawing a line

We have a confession: try as we might, we just can’t get our heads around the laws of this game.

Yeah, yeah. Regular readers/trolls can insert their own jokes/insults here, but we’re not alone: our confusion is shared by a growing number of players and coaches.

We’re talking about World Rugby’s ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to contact with the head and/or neck, and what constitutes an infringement, plus the severity of the ensuing adjudication: i.e. verbal reprimand, penalty, yellow card, red card or red card and suspension.

What troubles us about the new directive (now in its tenth month of operation) is that we are wholly unable to predict the outcome of an incident, not even after multiple replays, not even whilst eavesdropping on the officials’ on-field deliberations, and not even – as it turned out this weekend – after the card has been brandished and the stadium emptied.

We’re referring to the red card shown to Bok centre Damian de Allende for his late challenge on Lima Sopoaga during New Zealand’s narrow win in Cape Town on Saturday.

As guessing what pops from the ref’s pocket is a fool’s errand, we accepted De Allende’s actions warranted a red card. We accepted that because he was shown a red card.

But apparently referee Jérôme Garcès got it wrong – and that’s official.

The SANZAAR foul-play committee that reviewed the botched charge-down ruled that “act of foul play committed only came close to warranting a red card”. They concluded that it should have been a yellow card even though the “charge was late and the player had time to pull out before colliding with his opponent”.

Contact was, indeed, made above the shoulder but “the initial contact [was] made with the player’s forearm on the opponent’s chest, from whence the arm rose up to make contact, again not forceful, onto the opponent’s neck”.

This seems odds. World Rugby states that their ‘zero-tolerance’ approach applies even if a challenge “starts below the line of the shoulders”.

It’s probably unfair to compare De Allende’s actions with those of Sonny Bill Williams in the second Test against the British & Irish Lions, not least because Williams’ shoulder was level with the lowered head of his victim, whereas De Allende’s forearm was level with the chest of the upright Sopoaga.

But whilst both incidents were deemed to be high challenges at all levels of officialdom, De Allende’s actions were retrospectively downgraded to a warning whereas Williams was banned for four matches.

So why the glaring difference? Well, it has be down to the one glaring difference: Watson was injured, Sopoaga was not.

The New Zealander’s robust health was actually underlined by the SANZAAR blazers in their declaration of nothing-to-see-here: “The opponent was not injured.” As if that mattered.

Well, it seems it does matter. More often than not, referees are swayed by outcome over intent.

A few hours after Sopoaga went down, Argentina’s Tomás Lezana was hit hard by the on-rushing Marika Koroibete. It looked okay – the Wallaby wrapped his arms around the Puma as chest barrelled into chest. But Lezana didn’t get back up so the clock was stopped as the video evidence was picked apart, ad nauseam.

Did a slither of Aussie shoulder connect with Argentine chin? The search for evidence carried on for over four minutes – four minutes and five seconds, to be exact. Nothing was found and Koroibete escaped censure, but again it was the outcome that dictated arbitration.

Same day again, this time in England, and Newcastle’s Juan Pablo Socino is sin-binned for raising an elbow as Exeter’s Ian Whitten closes in. Socino was the ball carrier in this instance, but that earned him no discretion. Again, his goose was cooked by the outcome. As Falcons boss Dean Richards noted after the match: “It was just highlighted because the guy stayed down.”

We could pick out at least a dozen other examples in which the question of intent was completely overshadowed by the outcome. It seems dodgy challenges are only sanctionable if there’s pain involved. The application of this safety law appears to be dependent on injury, and this seems totally perverse: you can’t prevent injury by only reacting to injuries.

SANZAAR’s no-harm-no-foul approach will only open the door to play-acting, as there’s no doubt in our mind that De Allende’s red would have been upheld had Sopoaga been carried from the field.

The shoulder-line was always going to be a grey area, and referees must feel empowered to make their calls based on intent as they perceive it through the application of their own common sense, regardless of any damage done. And when they make that call, they must know that they have the full support of their superiors.

Still, we shouldn’t let the pen-pushers detract from what was a cracking game of Test rugby. The intensity and skill on display under Table Mountain will serve as a benchmark for seasons to come.

Welcome back, South Africa! How the world has missed you.

Squeaky clean

“To this day, I simply do not understand the thinking behind the fast-tracking of a player from international rugby league to international rugby union when so many of the things that had made him wildly successful in the 13-man game were of questionable relevance in the 15-man version.”

This is a common refrain when it comes to the whole, sorry Sam Burgess affair. It has been muttered by every England fan in existence, and at least seven times in the annuals of this column.

But you don’t expect it to come from the man who held the post of ‘RFU Director of Professional Rugby’ during the meteoritic rise of the young bloke who has taken the rap for England’s abortive performance at their own World Cup.

Yes, this is an extract from Rob Andrew’s astonishing new book: ‘Rugby: The Game of My Life: Battling for England in the Professional Era.’

Perhaps we’re being a little harsh. Apparently he almost persuaded Wayne Smith to set up shop at Twickenham. That would have saved England from Stuart Lancaster and Stuart Lancaster from himself. Sadly, due to factors entirely beyond Andrew’s control, this never came to pass – “instead, we were treated to a slow-motion car crash” that was Rugby World Cup 2015.

We also learn from his book that he didn’t even want to be part of RWC 2011: “I was tempted to stick two fingers up to the union and watch the World Cup from the safety of my lounge on the basis that if things went pear-shaped, I would be well out of it.”

As we say, astonishing!

Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby editor Andy Jackson

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