Saturday was a very unsatisfactory day for the Rugby World Cup. A useless French team got through to a final they scarcely deserve, and a far superior Welsh team went out. Much has been written about the sending off of their superb captain, Sam Warburton for a spear tackle in the 17th minute. And much of it has been worthy of Kevin the Teenager: ‘It’s soooo unfaaaaaaaaaaaaair!!!!’.
Stepehen Jones said there was no malice in the tackle, and Warburton’s dropping of Clerc was an act of pulling out of the tackle. Barnesy (in a shameful piece of journalism, it must be said) accused Rolland of an ‘arrogant misuse of power’, described him as half-French and pointed to conspiracy theories to secure the All Blacks the Cup. Shaun Edwards called for a change to the rules, where a player can be placed on report, as in League (indeed, Edwards said the tackle was fine for a Leaguer), and intimated that Warburton shouldn’t have been sent off becaue he’s a jolly good fellow.
The fact is that Warburton’s tackle satisfied the IRB definition of a spear/tip tackle, and referees have been instructed to penalise a spear tackle with a red card. The arguments against the sending off just don’t hold water:
1. There was no malice in the tackle and Warburton didn’t drive Clerc into the ground – irrelevant. The IRB rule cites driving or dropping the player as a spear tackle
2. Warburton is not a dirty player – irrelevant again. This invites double standards; that dirty Argentinians and Samoans are to be reffed one way and upstanding Anglo-Saxon heroes another. Disciplinary records are for judging panels to deal with, not referees.
3. The sending off ruined a semi-final – true, but not the referee’s fault. The law is there to protect player safety, which has to be more important than entertainment for those on the couch. It seems some have lost sight of why the ruling and sanction are recommended in the first place. The reason the tackle is outlawed is because it is so dangerous. It was Warburton, not Rolland who ruined the match, harsh though that may sound
4. A yellow and citing would have been fair – citings only occur for incidents which merit a red card. So if you believe a citing would be fair, then you have to accept a red card is deserved
5. Rolland should have consulted a touch judge – this is effectively asking for him to bottle the decision. He had a crystal clear view of the incident and acted decisively and correctly. Ironically, some of the same people castigated the touch judge in the Second Lions Test in 2009 for saying that Burger’s ocular exploration of Luke Fitzgerald was worthy of “at least a yellow card” instead of red
6. Other spear tackles in the tournament have been met with a yellow card – true, but those are the erroneous decisions, not this one. Take issue with the referees in those games if you want.
7. Rolland is half-French - a cheap shot from the likes of Stuart Barnes, who should know better. Plus he’s 0% French, he’s Irish – his father is French
8. Vincent Clerc was unhurt – true, but not the point – do we really want to grade an offence based on the severity of the injury caused?
Some commentators have even gone so far as to say the red card should be removed altogether with punishments doled out after matches rather than during. This is nonsense – the team sinned against has to benefit from the opposing side’s misdeeds. You really do get the imression the outcry is because a ‘good guy’ got sent off, and if it was a dirty Frenchman who had commited the offence, the volume of shrieking would be a lot lower.
And for those insisting that the sending off cost Wales the game: if the Welsh side could kick properly they would have won comfortably, sending off or otherwise. Also note that post red card, Rolland gave zero scrum penalties to France despite Jean-Baptiste Poux repeatedly tearing Paul James a new one.
And we haven’t even talked about the worst refereeing decision in the game – the penalty that Leigh Halfpenny narrowly missed – this call may have cost Rolland the final, but the red card certainly didn’t, since it was utterly correct.