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.
*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.”
“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.”
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.
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.