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

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Have You Got Playoff Fever?

This time of year sees the culmination of many a sporting season, a time when pressure is at its peak, and the difference between elation and devastation can be measured by a single goal, a point or the blow of an official’s whistle. Sir Alex Ferguson in his own inimitable style, labelled the period ‘squeaky bum time’, evoking emotions experienced by managers, players and fans alike at this crucial time of year.

The month of May has long seen titles decided and cups won. Players battle through long hard seasons, through the cold winter months and into the early spring warmth just to be in with a chance of some silverware. For some sports though it seems the long arduous regular season isn’t enough to decide who’s the best and who deserves the trophy. It’s all a precursor to the grand finale, the main event, the climax of the year – the playoffs.

Many of sports greatest trophies are won via playoffs. Photos: Steph Anderson, Briles Takes Pictures, ConspiracyofHappiness, mark.watmough.

The concept of a playoff competition, or ‘postseason’ in American sporting vernacular, at the end of a regular season is still a relatively new idea to British sports audiences. Playoffs to decide promotion issues in the Football League were first introduced  in 1986, Rugby League joined the party in 1998 and Rugby Union added it into their season in 2001. The big four American sports have long been using the playoff system to crown their champion though, with Baseball leading the way in the 1880s, Ice Hockey came next in 1918. Football followed suite in 1933, although you had to wait until 1967 for the first ‘true NFL playoff’, and Basketball introduced their first postseason tournament in 1947.

Why are playoffs needed though? Do they relegate the previous months of competition to effectively just jostling for position before the real action starts at the end of the season? And are they all just a big marketing ploy dreamed up by the league executives to earn more money to line their pockets with?

Unfortunately there isn’t a single answer to these questions. The reasoning behind a playoff system in larger countries, such as America, can be put down to the league structure and the impracticality of a league in which every team plays every other team an equal number of times. The big four American sports all split their national leagues into two, ice hockey and basketball go for a geographical East/West split, and baseball and football separate all their teams into an American and a National league (baseball) or conference (football). Each half of the split is then split up into divisions based on geography and each team will play more of their regular season games against teams in their own division. This means they will then play fewer games against sides on the opposite side of the country to them, so how do you decide which team is the best overall? Playoffs of course!

When it comes to playoffs here in Britain, it is fair to say there is an element of money-making involved. We face none of the geographical problems encountered by larger countries and so a league system in which all teams play each other home and away is easily implemented. So why are playoffs needed when a fair and comprehensive league system is already in place? League executives will tell you that playoffs mean there are less meaningless games at the end of the season – if more teams have more to play for in a season’s closing stages then it stands to reason that there will be fewer games played out by players with have half a mind on where exactly they want to position themselves around the holiday pool. This should result in more exciting matches for the fans right up until the final day of the season, more value for their ticket price and more connection with the players as they fight until the bitter end.

The elephant in the room in these discussions though is the revenue all of these extra games generate. Governing bodies may claim that playoffs are all for the enjoyment of the fans but they benefit greatly from the financial boost that playoffs give to a sport, be it through sponsorship, advertising, or television money. The men in suits at the top of the game aren’t the only ones counting the pounds as a result of playoffs though. Should a team make it to the postseason they can be almost guaranteed a sellout gate for their home fixture(s) and obviously a large cut of the television money to boot. So even an unsuccessful playoff campaign on the pitch can still be a success when judged by a club’s accountants.

But what of the fans, the theory suggests we should all be overjoyed that our team might scrape into the playoffs in the last week of the season and still be in with a chance of winning. Ask Blackpool FC fans if they like the playoffs, they’ll tell you they’re the greatest invention since sliced bread. They’re the only team in the history of the English football leagues to have been promoted from every division via the playoffs. During these four campaigns they have qualified in pole position for the playoffs three times, just missing out on automatic promotion by one place. However last season they only finished sixth, scraping into the playoffs at the end of the season and storming through to beat Nottingham Forest FC and subsequently Cardiff City FC to reach the Premier League for the very first team.

Were you to ask a Nottingham Forest fan what they thought of the playoff system, well I think you’d have to make sure you were clear of any impressionable young children. Having qualified for the playoffs four times in the past ten years, and failed to make it to the final on each occasion, Forest fans will give you a rather different view of the playoffs than Blackpool fans will. The even more galling aspect of it as a Forest fan is the seemingly unfair nature of the postseason bonanza. During most of the 2009-10 Championship season Forest were in a battle for the automatic promotion places, falling away in the final couple of months but still finishing comfortably in third position – one place away from automatic promotion. Forest then went on to lose to Blackpool in the semi-final, a team that finished three places and 9 points below them over the course of the 46 game season – where’s the fairness in that?

It seems that the longer playoffs are around in British sport, the more fans forgive the once perceived injustice of a third placed team not winning promotion, or the top placed side at the end of the league season not ending up as overall champion. Much of this is down to the entertainment factor, neutrals will tell you that playoffs often produce  spectacular entertainment, fans of those involved will tell you that those games are some of the most nerve-wracking they will ever be involved in. One thing can be assured though, playoffs are very rarely dull.

The long tradition of a postseason in American sports and the peculiarities of their league structure means there are few who question the existence of playoffs as a means to ending a season. Indeed the greatest playoff final of them all, The Super Bowl, has now supposedly become the most watched single sporting fixture in the world. In the other US sports, basketball, ice hockey and baseball, playoffs consist of a series of games to decide which team advances through to the next round. Best of seven game series are used, with the team with the better regular season record playing four of the potentially seven games at home. This means the likelihood of a fluke result is reduced, a team will have to beat their opponents four times before advancing, meaning that US playoffs are less of a cup competition than perhaps they are in Britain. This is only the case in three of the four sports though, where the minimum number of games a team will play in a season is 82 (basketball and ice hockey) and as high as 162 in baseball. In football, where a team will only play 16 regular season matches, the playoffs take on a one-game knockout format seen in both rugby union and league in Britain. This can be put down to the physical nature of the sports more than anything else though.

So playoffs have their pros and cons, unless you abolish them altogether then there will always be some dissenters who question their fairness. Though it seems the longer playoffs have been around in a sport the quieter the voice of these naysayers becomes and the louder the voice asking what we did before playoffs were introduced gets. They my not be everyone’s cup of tea but they definitely entertain, even those Forest fans who’d rather finish in mid-table obscurity than be faced with another inevitable heartbreak will testify to that.

Finally, in answer to this posts title, in case you haven’t guessed it already – no, I most definitely have not got playoff fever, not since about 21:45 this evening (16th May) anyway!

Photo credits: Vince Lombardi Trophy – Steph Anderson, Larry O’Brien Trophy – Briles Takes Pictures…’s, World Series Trophy – ConspiracyofHappiness, Stanley Cup – mark.watmough