Sunday 11 December 2016

Neil Francis: Referees failing the players they are meant to protect

Published 18/02/2016 | 02:30

Dave Kearney suffered an injury against France which rules him out of Ireland’s game against England: Reuters / Andrew Boyers
Dave Kearney suffered an injury against France which rules him out of Ireland’s game against England: Reuters / Andrew Boyers

I suppose nothing less than a profound sense of disillusionment would be the way I feel after no action was taken against Yoann Maestri and Guilhem Guirado for foul play in last Saturday's Test match in Paris. The Union bodies and their communications people always throw in the term 'alleged' foul play in their communiqués - legal protocols that have to be observed so that the perpetrators are not judged before their trial - if in fact they ever do go to trial.

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I was fairly busy on Monday but I did manage to hear a number of sports bulletins in the late afternoon. No citings at that stage. It was a bit like fisherman lost out at sea - the longer that you hear nothing, the more certain you are that the outcome is going to be bad. I rang the IRFU at about 7pm - 'Rien' was the answer. There would be no citings.

When I got home I watched both incidents about 30 times each in real time and in slow motion. I watched them again before I wrote this piece. All I can say is may the Lord protect us from the people who are supposed to protect us.

Rugby Union is a violent game. Before any game, particularly at the elite level, all players are apprehensive and nervous in the lead-up and in the dressing room. You can be nervous for a variety of reasons.

There is a unique element of danger in Rugby Union due to the contact and volition. Young men are drawn to the element precisely for that reason. How you handle yourself in contact. How you measure up to the controlled violence and aggression.

Violence

Deep in the back of your mind there is the outside chance that you could pick up a serious injury or even lose your life in this physical contact. This controlled violence - it is a test of self. Pre-meditated violence and foul play - well that is something that is outside of your control - and you put your faith and indeed your life in the hands of somebody else, trusting that they will uphold your faith.

A referee at the highest level has become so much more than somebody who knows the rules of the game. Whatever about applying the rules of the game fairly to both sides - he has a duty of care (there is that term again) to protect all 30 players on the pitch from foul play. When it comes to people's lives and their safety, incompetence or indifference cannot be an excuse. It is an onerous responsibility. When a referee and his team fail the players - what then?

Split-second decisions now have the safety net of TMO. There are about 20 cameras at a Test match - yet human judgement is still the sole arbiter.

How can it be though that Yoann Maestri can alter his line of running to ensure that he connects with a player whose vision is on the ball he has just passed and who is attempting to run a support line when an elbow connects with his head. Blindsided! Anybody in the audience ever get a hard elbow in the side of the head when you were not expecting it from a 20-stone 6ft 8ins man who could deadlift the back axle of a Fiat 500? Apparently you can get a yellow card for killing the ball on the ground twice - but not for assaulting an opponent.

Jaco Peyper saw the foul and did nothing. A penalty for three points is pretty meagre compensation for this act of premeditated violence. George Ayoub, the TMO, abdicated responsibility as well.

Guirado's tackle evoked a gasp from the Parisian crowd - an act of such conclusive finality that it almost warranted a call for Fanagans Undertakers. Guirado's left arm clearly wrapped around David Kearney's windpipe. The first point of contact came above the nipple and went further up around Kearney's neck as his momentum was stopped. As the tackle's momentum changed Guirado's forehead clearly hits Kearney on the side of the head as the French hooker followed through. At no stage did Guirado come remotely close to closing his arms around Kearney's body and completing the tackle. And so a neck-high body charge where heads make contact and all done at a vicious pace. No sanction on the pitch. No safety net from the TMO and no case to answer from the citing officer.

The citing commissioner at the game was Scotland's Paul Minto who actually did make a citing complaint against Guirado under the catch-all article 10.4 under World Rugby Law. The citing officer Alan Mansell (England) inexplicably decided that there were no grounds to take it further - a quite incredible conclusion to the whole affair.

Watch the tackle again on-line and question whether Mr Mansell is the only one in the world who doesn't think this is a very dangerous and illegal tackle.

The decision of the citing officer is final and binding. Kearney will miss the England game and might not get his place back if or when he is fit to play again. Guirado will lead his team against Wales tomorrow week. Justice? Fairness? Not in this game.

I think it is only a few years away from a situation where a player's wife or parents will not accept a decision like this anymore and they will go to the law courts for justice. I would be fairly certain that a case like this which went before the appropriate legal forum would come to a far different conclusion.

My thoughts on this are pretty far away from example and precept. If the governing (ha) bodies don't really give a s**t about showing what is and isn't allowable on the pitch to young players - well why should anyone else bother? Player welfare? Player burnout? Player injuries? Buzzwords! Best practice? Sound bites.

If there is no sanction for clear and evident foul play then let's just put 15 Conor McGregors on the pitch, wind them up and set them off.

I wrote strongly on the Sean O'Brien/Pascal Pape episode in Cardiff back in October. You can be damn sure that if Johnny Sexton got up and followed Maestri across the pitch and clocked him, Sexton would be penalised. Cheaters' justice. You depend on the man charged with responsibility for fair play to do his job - when he doesn't what fallback do you have? The perpetrator's malice aforethought wins because there is weakness in authority.

Meanwhile, Jaco Peyper after a grand weekend in Paris gets to go to Rome for the Italy versus Scotland game on Saturday week. George Ayoub gets Wales versus France, Ireland (again) versus Italy and Wales versus Italy. Unacceptable performances in Paris rewarded and the probability of more weakness in key matches.

Where are the strong voices saying that they should be replaced because their performance fell below a certain level. The rugby so far in this Six Nations is sub-standard - the officiating even more so.

Irish Independent

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