Sport Rugby

Friday 9 December 2016

Rolland right to go by book

Referee shows his strength by putting player safety first, writes Paul Ackford

Published 16/10/2011 | 05:00

Strip away the emotion from a fabulously courageous Welsh effort and only one conclusion remains. Alain Rolland's decision to show Sam Warburton the red card for a tip tackle on Vincent Clerc after 17 minutes, a decision which has sparked considerable criticism and resentment from the Welsh camp, was absolutely correct.

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Law 10.4 (j) states that "lifting a player from the ground and dropping or driving that player into the ground whilst the 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. Sanction: penalty kick".

You'd struggle to find a better, more accurate description of what Warburton did than that paragraph in the law book. Following a lineout won by France, the Welsh captain drove up and into Clerc, using his own momentum and strength to lift and tilt the French winger to the right, beyond the horizontal, applying downward pressure for a fraction of a second before releasing him. Clerc landed with the base of his neck and shoulder area striking the turf simultaneously, feet still up in the air.

Rolland got that part bang on. His next decision was whether to do anything other than award a penalty for the offence, and here we come to the words of Paddy O'Brien, the International Rugby Board's referees' manager.

Before this World Cup got under way, O'Brien told officials that they had "let the foot off the throat" in five areas, one of which was foul play. In the case of "high tackles, grabbing and twisting of the head, and tip tackles", O'Brien told his referees to "start at red [card] and work backwards".

That's it. Case closed. Warburton knew that, Wales coach Warren Gatland knew that. All 48 competing teams were briefed that this was an area of focus for the officials. What Warburton did to Clerc was an error of judgment by a young man who has had a fabulous tournament and who will go on to enjoy a stellar career, but Rolland was spot on, and any other interpretation is inaccurate and unfair.

All the other ingredients -- the fact that it was a World Cup semi-final, the lack of malice, the argument that it occurred early in a match which was not in any sense overly aggressive -- are irrelevant.

Blame the IRB for trying to over-sanitise a collision sport if you wish, but there weren't many complaints when Fiji's Dominiko Waqaniburotu was cited and subsequently suspended for three weeks after a similar tackle on Springbok Pat Lambie earlier in the tournament, nor did the five-week suspension Sukanaivalu Hufanga of Tonga picked up, after a yellow card and a citing following another tip tackle on Clerc, attract criticism.

The IRB have been consistent throughout the tournament in their campaign to improve player safety. All Rolland did was to take appropriate action on the pitch rather than leave the decision to the disciplinary officers.

That's not weak refereeing. That's strong refereeing.

None of this should obscure what was another impressive Welsh effort up to a point -- that point being that, for the second time in the tournament, they manoeuvred themselves into a position from which to win a game and failed to do so. The first was their opener against South Africa when Rhys Priestland fluffed a drop kick in the closing minutes.

Against France there were any number of chances. Leigh Halfpenny was short with a long-range penalty, Stephen Jones shaved the post with his conversion after Mike Phillips's try, and then unaccountably declined to attempt a drop goal after Wales had worked a decent field position with 10 minutes left.

Two games lost, both by a solitary point, both containing contentious and controversial decisions (Wayne Barnes not asking the television match official to check on a James Hook penalty against the Boks). The rugby gods were definitely not smiling on Wales in New Zealand.

And that's the ultimate sadness because Wales may never get a chance as good as the one that drifted away from them on yesterday. This young side might mature into something special. In Jamie Roberts, Priestland, Warburton, George North, Toby Faletau, Mike Phillips and Dan Lydiate they have men with the character and talent to rock the very best.

But international sport is about making something of the moment, and Wales, having absorbed the loss of Warburton quite magnificently, were not quite able to seize theirs. Heroic failure, whichever way you dress it up, is still failure.

Telegraph

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