Thursday 14 November 2019

Alan Quinlan: 'It's essential the world's best players are given protection and freedom - starting today'

 

Nic Berry is one of the more inexperienced referees at the World Cups. Photo by Muhammad Amir Abidin/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Nic Berry is one of the more inexperienced referees at the World Cups. Photo by Muhammad Amir Abidin/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

The disciplinary figures make for grim reading: 21 yellow and six red cards in 33 games, two more sendings-off than any of the previous eight Rugby World Cups.

The most striking thing, other than the fact that there are still - weather permitting - 13 matches to play at the 2019 tournament, is that the red-card count should already be in double digits as disciplinary panels retrospectively handed out three-match bans to Reece Hodge (Australia), Nicola Quaglio (Italy), Motu Matu'u and Rey Lee-Lo (both Samoa) for dangerous play.

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Nigel Owens seen sending off Argentina’s Tomas Lavanini. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire
Nigel Owens seen sending off Argentina’s Tomas Lavanini. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire

The penny just isn't dropping; players no longer just have to mind themselves on the field, there is a duty of care, particularly around the head area, for the other 29 players too. Officials will continue to dish out cards like croupiers until the message is heeded.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen accepted as much this week after two of his props were sent to the sin-bin for tackles that made contact with the head of opponents.

In a refreshingly measured assessment, Hansen labelled the decisions "fair" and conceded that the new laws simply need to be obeyed better: "The rules aren't going to change, so we have to accept that and get on the best we can and adapt and adjust quicker than we have."

Samoa's head honcho Steve Jackson has struggled to keep his blood below boiling when discussing similar matters.

Suspensions

He may have had grounds for complaint over a couple of decisions in their last outing against the hosts, but the suspensions of Matu'u and Lee-Lo, for shots on Russia captain Vasily Artemyev, were absolutely warranted.

At a World Cup where indiscipline has been criminal, Samoa have been the worst offenders, picking up four yellow cards and one red to date, and, as already mentioned, the two yellows against Russia, brandished by Romain Poite, were subsequently not deemed punishment enough.

Pascal Gauzere showed Ed Fidow yellow twice, and also awarded penalty tries to Scotland on both occasions, for first collapsing a maul and later sliding in knees-first on Sean Maitland as the winger was stretching, with his ribs exposed, to score.

Back-row TJ Ioane continued Samoa's heavily-blemished campaign when Jaco Peyper sent him to the naughty chair last Saturday for a dangerous no-arms shoulder charge on electric Japan winger Kotaro Matsushima.

Jackson may be smarting, but those decisions were all clear-cut. The referees have to protect the players on the field and Nic Berry must do exactly the same in Fukuoka today. Samoa's flights home are already organised, they have nothing to lose. For Ireland, it's quite the opposite.

Adapting to new tackle laws has been difficult for players across the world but it has possibly been more of an adjustment for Pacific Island sides, where hard hitting, at chest height and above, is more of a tradition - with legal rugby league shoulder charges and Brian Lima's fearsome days as 'The Chiropractor' still sharp in Samoan memories.

Berry is one of the most inexperienced referees at this tournament, a 35-year-old former scrum-half who played with Queensland Reds, Racing Metro and Wasps before concussion issues forced him to retire at 28.

The Australian only officiated in his first Super Rugby game two-and-a-half years ago, and today he will take charge of just his 16th Test match - fewer international outings than Jacob Stockdale, Joey Carbery or Jordan Larmour have amassed in their fledgling Ireland careers.

Yet despite being relatively green at this level, Berry has already proven himself to be a good referee and like the game's leading officials, Wayne Barnes and Nigel Owens, he is an excellent communicator.

Berry ably took charge of Ireland's 27-19 win against Argentina last November, a sloppy game that will largely be remembered for a luckless Seán O'Brien breaking his arm ahead of a showdown with the All Blacks. The man in the middle did a fine job and was not a key figure in the post-game analysis.

Today will be Berry's fourth game of this World Cup. I was in the commentary box for his third, last Sunday's close-fought Pool C showdown between France and Tonga, a match in which Berry, and his assistants Paul Williams, Matthew Carley and TMO Ben Skeen, didn't punish cheap shots by Tonga lock Sam Lousi on France hooker Camille Chat and No 8 Gregory Alldritt, each of which warranted yellow cards.

The spark that ignited Lousi's rage for the first incident came from an illegal clear-out from the French front-rower, who was also fortunate not to spend 10 minutes on the sidelines.

Human errors will always occur but you would hope that on rugby's grandest stage, with a team of four officials, and with the benefit of video footage, that these kind of incidents would be picked up. These are the kind of reckless incidents that can end a player's tournament in such cruel fashion.

To the untrained eye it may seem that a record number of red cards means the referees are catching most offences at this World Cup but that is far from the case, particularly when it comes to side entries at rucks. The amount of them going unpunished has been outrageous.

Refereeing rugby is a tough gig but that kind of dangerous play and the limp enforcement of the offside line have been major failures by the officials in Japan. There has been such a focus on high tackles that other areas, particularly around the ruck, are being neglected.

Ireland haven't been squeaky clean around the rucks or the offside line either. Players will push the laws as far as they can; the onus is on the referee to manage the game's temperature and firmly set the boundaries early on.

The referees are under fire from fans, the media and even the game's governing body, but with knockout rugby upon us, it's essential that the world's best players are given the protection and freedom to let the sport take centre stage. That must start today.

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