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, March 11, 2012

White Card, White Flag.

It's one thing to say the referee's decision is final. But what if he's not making any decision at all?

Those watching the Super 15 will know there is a trial of a new card, the white card. It means that the referee doesn't give a red, or a yellow, but flags to a Citing Commissioner that there is something that happened that the Citing Commissioner should look at. It's taken from rugby league's On Report system. Like most league imports, from tip-tackles to ignoring crooked put-ins at the scrum to Chris Ashton, it's not working out half as well as was thought.

In the first round, Mark Lawrence yellow-and-white-carded a clear, unquestionable, red-card tip tackle offence by Andries Strauss of the Cheetahs on Wikus van Heerden of the Lions; van Heerden was concussed by the tackle and had to leave the field. You can see it HERE (which, in passing, shows how dangerous these tackles are, and why scrum caps don't protect from concussion) and read a discussion of the system HERE.

This weekend, Bryce Lawrence didn't even white-card a tip-tackle that you can watch from different angles HERE, HERE and HERE. Again, an offence where the player was lifted, both feet off the ground, dropped without regard for safety, and head or upper body hit the ground first - a category 2 red card - and nothing done.

Of course, the point is, a Citing Commissioner will watch the game and cite what he or she feels is worthy of citing regardless. All the white card does is offer a way out of a straight red by passing the buck for the suspension to the Citing Commissioner, not arising from a - warranted - red card.

Perhaps the worst example of this of late was Dave Pearson in the Bradley Davies case. In his evidence to the citing hearing, he stated that he did not recommend a red card for Bradley Davies clear category 2 red card offence because he felt it should be left to the Citing Commissioner. Bluntly, that was a cop-out.

The problem is, human nature. Making decisions is hard, and making decisions in a pressurised situation is even harder. That's why good refs are rare. It's why judges are paid well; making pressurised decisions is a rare skill. It's a lot easier to leave the job to someone else who has more time to look at it slowly. But, if you take the job of being a decision-maker in a pressurised situation, not making a decision is a luxury you don't have. If you don't make the decision, if you leave it to someone else, you are not doing your job.

There is more to this than just commenting on failure to make a decision affecting the game. There is a legal liability aspect to this. Once again, we have to look at the core reason why the respective referees in Smoldon v. Whitworth and Vowles v. Evans were found liable; they failed to make a decision. In each case, the referee failed to apply a law made for player safety and a player was injured as a result of that breach of duty of care on the part of the referee.

Law 10 (4) (j) is just such a law; it was amended to read as it now does to protect players, and the memo directing referees to send off players who commit category 1 or category 2 offences makes it clear that that, too, is based on player safety. A player who has been injured as a result of a failure to send off players who commit those offences, or a player who could make a case that the failure to act on that memo meaning players have not been deterred from tip-tackles contributed to his injury, could then point to Vowles v. Evans and say: you had a duty to apply this law for my protection; you did not; and because of that failure I have been injured; so you are now liable.

These tackles are dangerous. The deterrence to stop players from committing them is needed to protect players. And, the more referees reach for white card instead of the harder, but correct, red, then the closer  the day comes when an injured player sues a referee for failing to do his duty and deter a tackler from tipping someone upside-down and dropping them onto his neck.

 One of the core tenets of rugby is: the referee's decision is final. But that means the referee has to make an on-pitch decision. The white card cop-out just makes the tempting, dangerous and weak option too easy. It should go no further.