Loose Pass: Head collision idiocy, Marcus Smith and Ardie Savea’s responses and one to watch

Lawrence Nolan
Loose Pass image 7 March 2023.jpg

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the latest round of head collision idiocy, Marcus Smith’s response, Ardie Savea’s response and one to watch…

Heads, you lose

At some point, we have to sit back and acknowledge that the head collision reviews are simply not working consistently enough. Blame is being apportioned to wholly innocent players, referees are under undue scrutiny from the head injury observers crying foul and from coaches and players keen to milk the new directives for competitive advantage. When a referee says ‘let’s go through the process’ these days, there is often a sense of foreboding that a game is about to be skewed. Empathy for the speed, size and chaos of the modern game is glaringly absent.

Again, over the past 10 days alone, we have had two head collisions resulting in red cards in circumstances which could not have been more different. Mohamed Haouas’ red card was thoroughly deserved, the other red card was meted out to Saracens prop Robin Hislop who was close to helpless. Exeter fly-half Harvey Skinner appeared to miss the same fate as Hislop by the skin of his teeth.

Hislop seemed to be picked out for planting his right foot as he braced for contact with the onrushing Joe Carpenter. His right foot was a bit forward from its initial position, but this was not the step into contact a coach will ask a tackling player to make in order to dominate the collision, this was a planting step in order for Hislop to make himself more stable. He needed to: not only was Carpenter on a jinking run, he had also burst through a small tangle of players and was being tackled from Hislop’s left by another Saracen.

It’s all here, from about 4:30 onwards.

This other Saracen is also a crucial aspect. Carpenter’s running line was taking him towards Hislop’s right shoulder. For Hislop to tackle with that shoulder with his torso stooped, he would have had to put his head in the way of said Saracen tackler – not advisable. To tackle with the other shoulder – and bear in mind this is Carpenter at full tilt here – he would have had to put his head on the ‘wrong’ side of the tackle, quite likely exposing his own neck and head to the force of the contact. And so, with his head caught between a rock and a hard place, he stayed upright, planted a foot to be stable, and spread his arms wide for the contact. When it came, the heads snapped into each other, with Hislop leaning backwards as he realised the danger. It should also be noted, Carpenter’s raised forearm was perilously close to Hislop’s throat.

From the moment Carpenter is clearly free from the previous tangle and on a collision line to Hislop, to the moment of the actual collision, is just shy of a second in real time. Hislop has to process all of this information above and try to work out how to get into a safe position, then actually do so, to make a tackle in that time.

It’s impossible. And the way ‘the process’ is currently being directed simply does not take this into account – indeed, the lack of empathy shown by those who review the action is becoming ever more discouraging. Tacklers are being asked to put their heads into deeply dangerous territory – surely something we should be trying to avoid – and then being punished for either errors in judgement or inability to put their heads in those positions fast enough.

We’ve got to understand the game and its dynamics better if there’s going to be progress on head injuries as well as encouraging the game to be played properly. Week in, week out we get points of reference: the two correct red cards in the Scotland-France game encapsulated what we need to stamp out: shoulder-charges into contact by a tackler and reckless clear-outs. The Hislop card needs to serve as a point of reference for something that just happens in a dynamic sport in which collisions are a feature. Penalise it if you must, but to expel a player from a game for being in a helpless position? ‘The Process’ needs to be better than that.

Gold Smith, but…

How do you respond best to being dropped from your chosen team? Go out in the next game and orchestrate 14 other talented players in shredding an opposition defence of course.

And so Marcus Smith’s exile from England duty lasted about five days. But the caveat is: good though Smith was, Exeter’s defensive positioning was pretty poor. There’s a major difference between shredding an international-less club defence and a Shaun Edwards-led fully international one.

Smith’s remaining task is to prove to Steve Borthwick he can do both. That said, it’s absolutely time Mr. Borthwick gave him the chance.


So, probably time to relax. Ardie Savea is not about to murder Ryan Louwrens in cold blood, as one of Louwrens’ team-mates shrieked during Friday’s game.

Savea is likely to be censured for a pretty ugly gesture and that’ll probably be it.

But we do have a question: if Savea is to be censured for this, why is the same act – even if watered down and shifted slightly away from the throat – still permissible as the final act of the Kapa O Pango haka?

Formbooks open

There’ll naturally be plenty of eyes on Le Crunch, probably a fair few expecting, more than wondering, if Italy can consign Wales to a Wooden Spoon, but Loose Pass cannot wait for the ScotlandIreland game on Sunday.

The same two teams clash in the World Cup later in the year, for which Ireland are becoming favourites. And yet the pool, which also contains South Africa, is fraught with peril for all three, such is Scotland’s recent resurgence. Ireland could clinch the title with a big win, Scotland will capture the Triple Crown with a win.

An icy Murrayfield, a red-hot reception, an inspired Finn Russell: this is a banana-skin for Ireland waiting to be slipped on, for Scotland, another chance to rubber-stamp their return to the elite. A thrilling match is in store.

READ MORE: Marcus Smith: Five key areas from Saturday’s performance which would have impressed England head coach Steve Borthwick