Seeing Red

During the recent Rugby World Cup semi-final between Wales and France the Welsh captain and one of the players of the tournament so far, Sam Warburton, was given a red card for a dangerous tackle on French winger Vincent Clerc. Now that some time has passed, Wales have played and lost the 3rd place playoff match, the media circus surrounding the decision and its consequences has died down somewhat.

Webb Ellis Cup

Did Sam Warburton's actions cost his country a shot at the Webb Ellis Cup? Photo: americanistadechiapas

*Disclaimer: I am not, and have never claimed to be, an expert on the intricacies of rugby. I have never really played the game other than during PE lessons at school as I am neither big enough to be a forward, fast enough to be a winger or brave enough to tackle someone running straight at me. I do however enjoy watching the game and have a basic grasp of the laws. I also have no anti-Welsh agenda, like most frustrated England fans I wanted Wales to beat France and win the subsequent final.*

First of all let’s get the series of events that led to Warburton’s dismissal noted as I see them:

1. Sam Warburton tackled Vincent Clerc and lifted the Frenchman off his feet.

2. Warburton proceeded to tip Clerc so that his feet were above his head.

3. The Welsh captain began to move Clerc downwards and then dropped him to the floor.

4. Clerc landed on his shoulders and his head slapped against the turf with his feet still in the air.

The immediate reaction to the tackle angered me and I will now attempt to explain why:

As I have already mentioned I am no expert on the laws of rugby but I am familiar enough with the principal that if you lift someone whilst tackling them it is your responsibility to put them down safely. I have also read enough about dangerous tackles in the aftermath of the spear tackle that prematurely ended Brian O’Driscoll’s Lions tour in 2005, to know that any tackle in which the feet of the tackled player are brought above their head can be interpreted as dangerous. As a result it was immediately evident upon seeing Warburton’s tackle that he could be in trouble with the referee.

In the aftermath of the decision to send him off and in order to clarify the situation, the following passages of the laws of rugby union have been widely circulated:

Law 10.4 “Lifting a player from the ground and dropping or driving that player into the ground whilst that player’s feet are still off the ground such that the player’s head and/or upper body come into contact with the ground is dangerous play.”

“Referees…should not make their decisions based on what they consider was the intention of the offending player. Their decision should be based on an objective assessment (as per Law 10.4) of the circumstances of the tackle.”

A memo sent by Paddy O’Brien of the International Rugby Board (IRB) in 2009 stated, with regards to the type of tackle described in Law 10.4:

“For these types of tackles they [referees] were to start at red card as a sanction and work backwards. Unfortunately these types of tackles are still being made and the purpose of this memorandum is to emphasise that they must be dealt with severely by referees.”

Vincent Clerc playing for Toulouse

Vincent Clerc is the innocent party in all of the discussions. Photo: Gil Calmon

So according to the laws of the game the referee was well within his rights to send Warburton off and that should have been the end of the matter. However for a number of reasons it was not and it inevitably became the major talking point of the game (admittedly by writing this blog I am provoking further debate so I am just as guilty as anyone else for not letting the issue rest).

The first thing that struck me upon watching these events unfold on ITV was the words of the co-commentator, former Welsh captain Michael Owen.

Before seeing a replay of the tackle he said:

“I don’t think there was anything malicious in that there, Sam Warburton just got a great hit on. I think he just slipped up over the top, there’s not much you can do when you make a tackle as sweet as that.”

There may not have been any malicious intent in the tackle, and my opinion is also that there was no intent to harm, but as I have shown above the intent of the tackling player should not be considered – only an objective assessment of the tackle. He also did not “just slip over the top”, this wasn’t a borderline high-tackle that went awry, Warburton deliberately tipped Clerc. However I will give Owen the benefit of the doubt as he had yet to see a replay.

Having seen a replay:

“He takes Clerc man and ball, it’s just one of those things, it’s a good tackle and unfortunately his legs have gone above his shoulders.”

No I’m afraid I can’t agree with you there Michael, it’s not just one of those things and it wasn’t unfortunate that his legs went that high. It was the deliberate action of the Welsh captain that resulted in Clerc being up-ended. I don’t believe that anyone playing international rugby would not know the rules regarding spear/tip tackles, therefore it is a bad tackle and a bad decision.

Upon seeing Warburton at the side of the pitch and assuming he had been yellow carded:

“I think that’s very very harsh to get a yellow card for that [before knowing it’s a red], you’re playing rugby, it’s a very ferocious game – it’s very hard to bring someone down with care.”

I agree that it is hard to bring someone down safely, but if you make the decision to lift them then it is your responsibility to do so, if you don’t lift the player you don’t have to worry about how you put them down. Also suggesting that a tackle such as this should go unpunished is irresponsible, tip/spear tackles have been outlawed and deemed dangerous because that’s exactly what they are. I accept that rugby is an inherently dangerous game, however these types of tackles are unnecessary and come with a high risk of serious injury.

After learning that the card was actually red:

“I think he’s got that completely wrong there, I don’t think it should’ve been a sin-bin, I think a penalty maybe, he’s got that completely wrong.”

Once again he suggests that a penalty would be sufficient punishment which I cannot agree with. The second issue of whether it should have been a red card is up for debate, opinions from current and past players suggests that a yellow card would have been more reasonable.

Adam Jones at the 2007 World Cup

Adam Jones was forced to leave the game early through injury. Photo: Manuel MC

From an outsiders perspective I am completely comfortable with the red card punishment for what was an unnecessarily dangerous tackle. However were a yellow card to have been awarded I don’t think I would have questioned the decision as Warburton did not ‘spear’ Clerc into the ground.

My main issue with the outcry about the decision, and how it ruined the game and Wales’ prospects of making a World Cup final, was the instant condemnation of the referee when the evidence proves that Alain Rolland was within his rights to send Warburton off.

I have seen little analysis that condemns Warburton for a rush of blood that potentially cost Wales a place in their first ever World Cup final. If he had not made what I will again call an unnecessarilly dangerous tackle his team may be preparing for the biggest game of their lives on Sunday instead of flying home without even so much as a bronze medal in their pockets.

We can’t even honestly say that his actions lost Wales the game either as the loss of Adam Jones early in the game and numerous missed kicks at goal can equally be blamed for Wales’ demise.

I only hope that sportsmen and women will learn from this lesson, if you don’t give the referee/umpire a decision to make then you won’t be complaining afterwards. Responsibility falls to the coaches and players themselves to behave and tackle in a fair manner at all times or face the consequences.

Parallels can be drawn with Wayne Rooney’s three match suspension from competitive England internationals following his petulant kick in the recent game against Montenegro. Complaints (though admittedly few) have been aimed at UEFA for inflicting the full three game suspension when it could have only been one, but if Rooney hadn’t lashed out in the first place then UEFA wouldn’t have had a decision to make.

Referees and umpires are not perfect, they make mistakes, but so do sportspeople and we can’t complain when the laws of the game are upheld, especially to punish dangerous behaviour such as that exhibited by Sam Warburton.

Photos: Webb Ellis Cup – americanistadechiapas, Vincent Clerc – Gil Calmon, Adam Jones – Manuel MC

10 thoughts on “Seeing Red

  1. I agree, one other point:
    Many of the commentators were saying that the referees should be aware of the state/importance/spectacle of the game itself.

    I say that so should the players, and it is their responsibility to play within the rules/laws of the game… The rules shouldn’t be any different whether it’s Cambridge 3rds on a windswept Saturday afternoon, or a semi final of the World Cup… You cannot change them to suit your own situation.

  2. I have to say when I read the first couple of lines, I was about to close out of it, but I decided to persevere, fantastic article and it’s about time something was published to defend a referee enforcing the laws of the game. Wales lost this game not the referee. Great article and about time that a bit of common sense prevailed unlike the ITV panelists and commentators mentioned above.

  3. The problem with this analysis, and for so many backing the red card ruling, is that they only bother to read the first line of the IRB memo. Read the rest of it and it is pretty clear that a yellow card, or just a penalty is allowed as a punishment. The IRB want this element of the game to be punished – yes, the IRB directive though, in full, makes it clear there are options open to the referee. Rolland is getting flack because he took the most extreme action without hesitation for a tackle which was far from the worse example of its kind in the tournament, where worse example have been punished with yellows, penalties, or not at all. Rolland faces ire because of inconsistency, as does the IRB. If every tip tackle offender had or will be sent off, you would have no complaints from Welsh fans, but here’s the rub, it has ONLY happened to a Welsh player.

    For all those saying Wales lost it through kicks, blah blah blah. You people have no idea of rugby matches. The card changed the whole balance of the game. Yes the kicks ‘should’ have been kicked, but the pressure on the kicker in such circumstances is massively magnified. On top of that, a teams ability to attack, defend, just do the basics of rugby at any level, if much harder with a man down, especially so for over an hour. Bleat all you want about ‘could haves’, the simple fact is a harsh ruling which had no precedent in the tournament, fundamentally altered the game, and DID cost Wales the game.

  4. Thank you everyone for all the comments.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your point Paul that the players should take note of the occasion as well. It’s a high pressure scenario for everyone and people are more likely to make mistakes under pressure, in my opinion Sam Warburton made the much larger mistake than Alain Rolland, if Rolland can be considered to have made a mistake at all.

    Having just watched the first few minutes of Scrum V Patrick I agree with your assessment of the guests comments. Josh Lewsey is quite matter of fact about it as it Kingsley Jones, they both consider that a yellow card would be sufficient punishment but also that they can’t really argue with the red. If Warren Gatland was present at the meeting with referees as Kingsley was and Alain Rolland is known for taking a no-nonsense approach to decisions then once again you have to place much of the blame at Sam’s feet for making the tackle in the first place.

    And eyeonwales I appreciate your comment and taking the time to read my post but I think you may have missed my point. I am not advocating a red card for the tackle, I mentioned that I have no issue with the red card but also that I wouldn’t have had an issue with a yellow because Sam didn’t spear him into the ground. My point is more the over reaction to the decision and lack of criticism of Warburton for making an unnecessarily dangerous tackle that gave the referee the option to send him off.

    I understand your calls for consistency across referees and your frustration that similar tackles have received lesser punishment in the tournament but the fact still remains that Sam gave the referee the option to send him off.

    I also take offence at your assertion that those questioning the impact on the outcome have no idea about rugby matches. I may not have played rugby but I have played enough team sports in my time to know the impact that losing a player has on a team. Yes it makes every facet of the game more challenging and puts the team under increased pressure but that is the price you pay if you make a poor decision under pressure.

    And finally I will bleat on all day about what ‘could have been’ if Warburton had not lifted Clerc in the first place. People are justified in their assertion that Wales could and should have still won the game, if the kicks were made then Wales would have won regardless of being a man down. I agree that Wales would have been far more likely to win had Warburton only received a yellow card but to say that the red card cost them the game whilst ignoring the missed opportunities with only 14 men is rather shortsighted.

  5. Good article Phil, at last a considered analysis of the Warburton red card. The ITV coverage of the Wales vs France game was embarrassing; the suggestion that Wales would have won the game with 15 men was at best academic and at worst plain daft.

    Returning to the red card, it was absolutely the right decision. 99% of the time, when a player is lifted and dumped, as Clerc was, he will escape seious injury. Had Clerc left the field on a stretcher with a serious spinal injury I expect the reaction would have been entirely different.

    Irrespective of any injury suffered, Warburton transgressed law 10.4 and rightly paid the penalty.

  6. Take a look at the way Rolland dealt with a very similar, probably worse tackle on Dan Lydiate in the wales v England game, yeah thats right he did not deem it to be even a penalty, that is the problem, it was a terrible decision that has ruined the world cup, Please do not defend Rolland, the majority of people that know and love the game consider it to be very harsh and out of context with other similar incidents.

  7. I’m not entirely sure how you can say the tackle on Lydiate was worse than Warburton’s on Clerc. Having just rewatched both I can see the comparison you are trying to make but Lydiate is not lifted anywhere near as high as Clerc, he is also not dropped – he is driven forwards as well as down which lessens the impact on the ground (Clerc is also not driven into the ground but being dropped from that height is dangerous). I admit that not awarding at least a penalty for that tackle in which his feet are above his head is inconsistent refereeing however that tackle was made in February. I would not be surprised if referees were told to tighten up on these types of tackles for the World Cup, in fact Kingsley Jones intimates as much in the Scrum V programme that is discussed above.

    Once again though I find myself arguing the merits of the card and inconsistencies of referees which is not the main point of my piece. Warburton made an unnecessarilly dangerous tackle that contravenes law 10.4 and therefore for this specific incident can have few complaints with his punishment and people should be criticising the players decision more than the referee for applying the rules.

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