In 1823, William Webb Ellis first picked up the ball in his arms and ran with it. And for the next 156 years forwards have been trying to work out why. - Tasker Watkins VC, LJ.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

RWC Part XIII - Sam Warburton Red Card Part III - Transparency.

Wales is a country of people who know, and cherish, their rugby; always has been, hopefully always will be.

This blog is about rugby, and the laws of rugby, and how the laws of rugby and the law of the land intersect.

You might think that the Welsh, knowing and loving the game, would have less need of this blog than most.

Yet, at twenty past nine yesterday morning, the traffic on this blog went through the roof, almost all from one part of the UK. And that's because everyone in full Millennium Stadium was turning to each other and asking, "What the f*ck was that red card for...?" and hitting the web for answers. The leading Welsh rugby forum, Gwlad, has been tearing itself apart arguing over it since; yet Gwlad knows the laws better than most referees. And this is the problem; the people who know the game better than most are still finding it hard to find out what the laws of the game are.

I dealt yesterday with the background to this, and why Sam Warburton was, to a large extent, unlucky with that tackle at this time. But what I want to deal with now is why it seems so hard for the average rugby supporters to find out what the laws of the game are. And I do so as much as someone who loves this game to distraction as much as I do as a lawyer analysing a system.

Players and coaches have enough on their hands playing, and coaching. They need to know what the Laws are. They need to know how they're going to be applied. This blog, and others, can do our best to go through the citing decisions, and piece together patterns on discipline, and application of the laws, and hope it helps coaches, players, refs and those in citing hearings. But it shouldn't be up to us. It's not our job. It's the IRB's job. And they're failing at it.

Bluntly, it's not good enough that major rulings on the game come out not in the Laws, but as semi-private directives. It's not good enough that the rules on tournament discipline aren't available to the public, and that anyone trying to work out what they say has to piece them together from fragments in citing decisions, like rugby's answer to cracking the Enigma machine. It's not good enough that the citing decisions on many tests, and entire leagues like the RaboDirect Pro 12 aren't available. It's not good enough that, to find out about these, one has to trawl through the internet to see if a kindly referee society somewhere in the world has put these up. There is almost a culture of secrecy, that this information about the game is something to be hoarded, kept from the public, guarded safe from prying eyes.

And it's nonsense. It's as counter-productive as could be imagined. If you throw open the doors and let everyone see and access this information, then the nagging feeling that something is being kept from us (which it is) goes away. People stop yelling, "Why us, ref?" when they realise, "Damn, that's exactly what that other lad got done for the other day, isn't it?" They can accept it, because it's consistent, and clear. They explain why to others. They spread the word. People who are new to the game understand, and can enjoy the game for the thing of beauty it is.

But all of that is made impossible when the average supporter - indeed, international players who are commenting on games - have to go trolling through the bye-ways of the internet of a Saturday morning to find out why a clear red card is a clear red card.

The reason legal cases are reported is so that that people know how the law develops. That, in part, is what I'm trying to do here; to string together precedents in rugby, as one would in the law. That knowledge, that openness is what gives certainty to the law. It's what gives people certainty in their job; people know where the boundaries are, what they can and cannot do. It's what gives consistency.

Yet, when international players are baffled, and trying to work out what's going on; when a player, like the French player Estebanez, gets handed a decision coming into a citing hearing and given time to reconsider how he deals with that case because he has been so clearly taken aback by what he's being told the laws of the game are; then that certainty, that clarity, is missing. It's not just about the enjoyment of the game, by the way; this is about people's jobs, and the rules of those jobs are almost clandestine.

How can they have a fair, consistent disciplinary system when the rules that system enforces are half-hidden from them? The Judicial Officers try their best, but what can they really do in this impossible situation where baffled players appear in front of them, and men who play the game for a living are told, sorrowfully: sorry, no; the rules are different to what everyone thinks they are.

It's not enough for the IRB to now make its 2009 ruling available on the Rugby World Cup website. It should have done it before the RWC started. It should have shouted it to the world when it told managers and others during the RWC. It should have shouted it to the world in 2009; the world would have welcomed it. The clarifications on some laws that year are on the IRB website; some are now laws. But the important bit about how the game is played - drop a guy in a tackle, and you're off - that's not.

A test captain has a lot on his mind before any game. Going into a Rugby World Cup semi-final, he has a lot more. He should be able to know, simply, clearly, and for definite, what he has to do. He should be able to know: bring the tackled player down arse-first, or it's a red card. The people watching should know that, too. It should be all there for them to check, clearly and simply available.

And until it is, you'll get 60,000 people who're so dedicated to the game they'll get up at seven on a Saturday to go to a stadium to watch a game on the other side of the world turning to each other and going, "What the f*ck was that for?" And so long as that happens, the game won't grow as it should.

That's the IRB's job. It's past time it sorted it out.


  1. Geoff, I'm really enjoying your blog. It's excellent. However, perhaps you should address the point made by Francois Pienaar. I think what you have said so far is basically that Rolland recieved a clear directive after an incident in a previous game that he should have issued a red for something very similar to the Warburton incident. Pienaar's point is that rugby rules require interpretation and that the game is actually quite different to other sports. One simply can't apply the letter of the law rigorously. If one did, every ruck would lead to a penalty. The game simply couldn't survive. Rolland should have taken account of the enormity of the decision, the fact that it was a semi-final, the fact that Warburton is not a dirty player, even the fact that Wales are a better team than France (are they? France didn't miss 11 pts worth of kicks). I don't agree with all that Pienaar says, but I agree that one can't be rigorous in application of the laws of rugby. They are not laws, they are guidelines, really.

  2. Unfortunately, Pienaar was wrong. This is a law for player safety. It has to be applied, or else the referee has a legal liability if it goes wrong. The point isn't that Rolland was wrong to not to give a yellow; the directive back in 2009 says he was right to give a red. The point is, three other referees who did see similar offences gave a yellow, and were told they should have given a red. Once that was known - and the citing decisions were there - then for Rolland to give a yellow knowing that it was wrong would have been to duck out. And when it comes to player safety, there can be no ducking out.

    It was a big call, and a hard call. But referees at that level aren't there to duck out of those calls, or take the easy option. If it's a red card, it's a red card, whatever the match, whoever the player, whenever the game; anything less is ducking out of making the decision that has to be made on the facts of the offence. Francois Pienaar, who played the whole of the 1995 RWC under the shadow that a draw would lose them the RWC because a ref didn't bottle a red card to Dalton against Canada should know that.

  3. So there are laws, and then there are other laws which allow referee discretion? Is there a clear distinction made between the two? I think Pienaar is correct that, if you apply the letter always, rugby dies.

    I agree that Rolland had no option. However, has the IRB worked its way into a logical corner from which it will be difficult to escape? What should Warburton have done differently? Should he have assessed the size and strength of his opponent and measured his tackle accordingly? The consequences of that conclusion seem rather dire.

    In rugby, the referee has a strong influence on how a game is played. It is very difficult to avoid that fact. It is a feature of the game that is unavoidable, in my opinion. A Joubert game will always be very different to a Rolland game. E.g. compare the refereeing of Pocock against SA to against the AB. Perhaps this subjectivity should explicitly be recognised?

  4. Tags, this is one I dealt with on an earlier post - look up the Red Card Offences ones. I'd agree that there is a discretion to play on, or maybe go for a yellow in the case of, say, offside; foul play in the game, but not dangerous foul play.

    However, when it deals with player safety, I'd say, no discretion. The ref's first duty is to the safety of the player. You don't play on over an injured player, because it's dangerous. Refs blow up dangerous tackles, or breakdowns, all the time, because it's dangerous. And once you take a player into the air, it's dangerous; so, you have to take the consequences of lifting him up first day. Bring him down arse-first, or else take the consequences; because it's too dangerous otherwise if there's no deterrent to make people bring players down safely.

    If you mean that things like the directive that a red card should be applied should be written into the laws; absolutely. The law was changed back in December; the penalty should have been restated, clearly, in the laws at that time. That's the failure of the IRB; make it clear, so people know what they can or cannot do.

  5. So what should Warburton have done once he realised, mid-tackle, that it had had unintended consequences? What could he have done to avoid it, and what should he have done in the milliseconds between, when he realised that the player was turning in the air, and when the player hit the ground.

    Do you think he simply made a tackle that was technically bad? That he had to leave for dangerous (inept) play?

    I agree with you that player safety must be the number one priority and that anything that jeopardises safety through malice, negligence, or even ineptitude, should probably result in red. I just don't see what Warburton should have done differently.

  6. What appears to be escaping everyone's attention is the fact that Rolland made horrendous call awarding Wales their penalty that Halfpenny was only inches from converting. Imagine the uproar if that went over... :)

  7. Meler, at first sight I also thought it should have been a penalty to France, but when you think about it, which offence occured first: the French player not going through the gate, or the Welsh player playing the ball on the ground to prevent him picking it up? It was the French player, hence a correct penalty to Wales.