Mixed messaging is not helping rugby’s cause as Freddie Steward’s red card is rescinded

Freddie Steward of England receives a red card from referee Jaco Peyper during the Six Nations clash against Ireland. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

Cian Tracey

Who’d be a referee, eh? With the eyes of the rugby world fixated on Jaco Peyper’s every word, the experienced South African official must have felt like he had done his due diligence by showing Freddie Steward a red card at the Aviva Stadium last weekend.

Peyper has been around long enough, though, to know that as soon as he sent off the England full-back, a storm was brewing.

As is usually the case with controversial incidents, the widespread outrage tends to be heard loudest, yet there are many who believe Peyper made the correct decision.

However, as soon as the disciplinary committee rescinded Steward’s red card, feeling it merited a yellow, it thrust Peyper back into the spotlight.

Reflecting on the incident that left Hugo Keenan needing a HIA (head injury assessment) that he did not pass, Peyper’s biggest mistake was stating he did not believe there had been any mitigating circumstances.

Mack Hansen’s knock-on is crucial in that regard, as that is what changed the whole picture, both from Steward’s and Keenan’s point of view.

The buck stops with the referee, yet it is worth pointing out that his TMO Marius Jonker fully agreed with his assessment of the incident. “I agree with the facts,” Jonker said after Peyper made it clear he did not see any mitigation factors.

Fast-forward to yesterday’s verdict, and this is what the disciplinary committee felt: “There were sufficient mitigating factors, including the late change in the dynamics and positioning of the opposing player, which should have resulted in the issue of a yellow card rather than a red card.”

That kind of mixed messaging is indicative of rugby’s convoluted disciplinary process, which is hard to get your head around at the best of times.

Keenan hit the nail on the head when he said it was “a weird incident. You never really see it.” That’s why there is some sympathy for Steward, who argued at the time: “I braced for impact, I can’t go anywhere else.” To which Peyper responded: “I understand, but in the current climate, you’re upright, you’re into contact...”

The term ‘current climate’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting there, as Peyper was clearly mindful of World Rugby’s major clampdown on head injuries. As he saw Keenan forced off, he may have felt backed into a corner.

As Steward made his way to the sideline, it was telling that James Lowe offered his commiserations, as, like his team-mate Keenan, he understood the tricky position that Steward had found himself in.

That was the second controversial incident Ireland were involved in across the Six Nations, as France prop Uini Atonio was shown a yellow card for a high tackle that left Rob Herring with a head injury.

The disciplinary committee took a dim view of the matter, handing Atonio a three-game ban, whereas the most experienced referee in the game, Wayne Barnes, only felt it was worthy of a yellow card.

Rugby is an extremely difficult sport to referee, but as long as the officials and the disciplinary committee are not on the same page, it leaves the game in a murky place.