Tuesday 22 October 2019

Tony Ward: Danny Cipriani dismissal highlights the massive problem rugby has been presented with


Rory Scannell being tackled in the incident that resulted in Danny Cipriani (left) being shown the red card at Thomond Park. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Rory Scannell being tackled in the incident that resulted in Danny Cipriani (left) being shown the red card at Thomond Park. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Danny Cipriani leaves the field after receiving a red card. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Not since Billy Bremner was dismissed along with Kevin Keegan in the 1974 Charity Shield at Wembley - and yes, I was there - has a red card upset me as much as Danny Cipriani's dismissal for (presumably) dangerous play in Limerick on Saturday.

Brian O'Driscoll hit the nail on the head in his post-match analysis when he suggested the game is at a pivotal point in its development. And like the former Ireland centre, I worry greatly about where it goes from here.

What the Gloucester out-half did was wrong given that his arm struck Rory Scannel's head or at least made contact from the shoulder area up.

On reviewing the video evidence through the TMO, the right decision was made in line with the letter of the law. As a director of rugby and coach to underage boys for more years than I care to remember, my heart and soul goes into making the playing field as safe as is humanly possible for the younger generation to enjoy the many benefits of this great game.

Not for a minute do I condone foul play - I think it's fair to say that my own playing record stands tall and is blemish-free in that regard - but we in rugby have a massive problem staring us in the face.

Players now are stronger, fitter and faster than ever before. They are also much taller too. Last year at an awards function Colin Patterson and I were in the company of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton. The Gulliver twins chatting to the Lilliputians was the thought uppermost in my mind at the time. I mention that in the context of Cipriani's defensive action - or maybe 'reaction' is the more appropriate term - as a static defender.

As of now the advantage is entirely in favour of the ball carrier and is becoming increasingly more so. Since time immemorial, rugby strategy has been built around launching back-row forwards or burly centres running at out-halves.

The point being that the attacker will drive in low when looking to make contact with any opposition shirt. I need some convincing that ball carriers are not now milking the swinging arm or head-high tackle through preparation in training geared towards that end.

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This is actually rugby's take on diving in the box in the round-ball equivalent - only considerably more dangerous.

Logically, how can an out-half, even a Lilliputian, possibly react in the instant to getting his legs and arms at least level, or better still even lower, than the ball carrier dictating the odds at contact?

I say this having togged out in the position for the entirety of my playing life.

Not for a minute am I suggesting Scannel's intent was to get Cipriani sent for an early shower, but equally I defy anyone to suggest that the defender's reaction in the moment was maliciously motivated.

Of course safety is paramount in the tackle and, most particularly, such must be the message from the top down. But I fear we are losing our way.

The ban-the-tackle brigade are being helped in their mission to achieve that ludicrous aim. Do I have the definitive solution? No. Nor would I pretend to. But much like O'Driscoll, I worry about where we go from here.

Rugby has long prized itself on having laws as distinct from rules, providing scope for interpretation. It might seem a short-term solution (and will not address the nub of the problem) but World Rugby could borrow from the GAA or indeed from Rugby League in introducing, with immediate effect, either the black card or the League process whereby an incident is put on report for post-match analysis.

My own preference would be the former because, as of now, there is no middle ground between yellow and red.

The match officials - referee and TMO - on Saturday knew that the instant punishment according to the law was excessive, but still they carried it through.

The message was strong but, for this observer at least, the colour red didn't make it right.

Beyond that Joey Carbery and Tadhg Beirne were nothing short of brilliant for Munster. Racing 92, despite Simon Zebo's unacceptable rush of blood to the head, restored the faith in a French game that has long lost its way. Toulouse added even greater credence with a swashbuckling, give-it-a-lash performance of old in yesterday's Pool 1 humdinger at the Stade Ernest-Wallon.

We'll not count too many poulet just yet, but could what we witnessed in Paris and Toulouse be the signs of a new dawn for French flair courtesy of the free-running Les Bleus days of yore?

It was tough on Leinster for sure, but what a game. What a competition.

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