x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Rules of distraction in Sam Warburton tackle

Forget about who has the best players or which team plays the best rugby, this World Cup already might have been decided by semantics.

Wales’ Sam Warburton was sent off for his tackle on France’s Vincent Clerc in the semi-final of the Rugby World Cup.
Wales’ Sam Warburton was sent off for his tackle on France’s Vincent Clerc in the semi-final of the Rugby World Cup.

Forget about who has the best players, which team plays the best rugby or who is the coolest under pressure. This World Cup already might have been decided by semantics.

By the letter of the law, Alain Rolland, the referee, was within his rights to send off Sam Warburton, the Wales captain, in the seminal incident of yesterday's semi-final.

A memorandum sent by the International Rugby Board to their members in 2009 regarding dangerous tackles specifically addressed the issue.

"The lifted player is dropped to the ground from a height with no regard to the player's safety," the memorandum read. "A red card should be issued for this type of tackle." Meaning that Warburton has no defence. "A height" can be an inch, or three feet, or six feet. As soon as he dropped Vincent Clerc, the French winger, it was case closed.

Warburton had done something similar in the previous match, against Ireland. His tackle on Ronan O'Gara, the Irish fly-half, in the quarter-final barely warranted mention, save for making the television compilation sequence to show how good his defence is.

There were two crucial differences, though. Against O'Gara, he did not lift his feet beyond the horizontal, and had him under control as he brought him back down to ground. Against Clerc, a similarly slight figure as O'Gara, he tipped him, then let him slip from his grasp.

He did not actively try to spear him into the turf, a la Keven Mealamu and Tana Umaga, whose team effort dislocated Brian O'Driscoll's shoulder during the 2005 British & Irish Lions tour. That incident was not penalised at all.

Furthermore, the referees have been ordered by their bosses not to make judgement calls based on intent, on account of it being subjective.

Fair enough. Warburton, it is safe to believe, is not the type to try to inflict serious damage on an opponent, especially by illegal means. But who is to say definitively?

However, that does not mean the referees should be automatons. They should be able to use their discretion, not least when there is so much riding on the outcome.

Red cards for tackles like this ruin amateur club matches. Should they be allowed to have such a shattering impact on a World Cup semi-final?

Obviously, the Welsh would have had a far greater chance of success had they not been forced to play more than an hour without their captain, but the match might have benefited from him staying on, too.

Had he received just the 10 minutes in the sin-bin for a yellow card, instead, perhaps the French might even have been encouraged to play the game.

Despite being faced with only 14 men for the majority of the game, the French had to make 130 tackles in the match. They forced just 55 from the Welsh, and could not breach their defensive line for any significant gains even once.

As it transpired, they were diabolical, and probably the most undeserving World Cup finalists to date.


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