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Onus on IRB in salvaging the soul of rugby

IT is a very sad reflection on the quality of rugby that we are seeing in the current World Cup that the only thing worthwhile commenting on is the red card issued by Alain Rolland to Welsh captain Sam Warburton in the first semi-final of the weekend.

The quality of fare and the entertainment quotient in this World Cup – and indeed in the last two – has been dismal and it is something that the IRB will have to address immediately.

Two games of low percentage kick-chase when we were looking for a contest, when we needed something to get our teeth into, when the neutrals were looking for something |to believe in and when the players themselves are losing faith in the direction the game is taking.

It is sad to see even the All Blacks abandoning the game which they have played for the past three years, an all inclusive and holistic game, and the game the way it is supposed to be played in favour of winning at any costs.

They are not willing to take a chance on trusting their extraordinary skill set and have lost their soul to play a game of the lowest common denominator. We will discuss that at length after the competition is over.

The Warburton dismissal got a lot of air play and column inches, most commentators referred to the law change and the emphasis change in previous communications from the IRB and its referee manager, Paddy O’Brien.

Reminder

It is true that some of these communiqués date as far back as June 2009 but they were revisited as part of a five-point reminder by O'Brien prior to the start of this RWC.

I have played provincial and international rugby with Rolland. He is an individual of the highest integrity. God knows why he went into refereeing but there is no question that he enjoys it.

One of the reasons he is such a good referee is because he played rugby at a high level, he understands the game and understands the way |it should be played. He has an empathy with the players and he is sympathetic to the difficulties that confront them and has a better understanding of the intricacies of the game than most of the drill sergeants carrying a whistle.

His interpretation at the breakdown, I think, is especially good and I think the fact that he was awarded the 2007 World Cup final speaks volumes about his quality.

Prima facie, Warburton’s tackle was unquestionably dangerous but as I had not seen the O’Brien directives, I thought all that was warranted was a yellow card.

The IRB in its communication has thrown down the term ‘zero tolerance’, its meaning is unmistakeable. However, you have problems of consistency here where there were, to my mind, three or four spear/tipping tackles in previous games, which resulted only in yellow cards or a retrospective citing.

The recommendation from the IRB was to “start at red and work backwards”. Effectively, the spear/tipping tackle was subject to the referee’s interpretation. Most of you saw exactly what happened and will have your own opinion.

Rolland saw it as a red card and did not take too long to send Warburton to the side line. Some might say it was strong refereeing given the directions he was given by his immediate superiors.

The IRB has stated that player welfare and safety is its prime consideration, which it is of course unless it interferes with any of |the body’s commercial concerns.

I do detect a sense of self-preservation here. It won’t be long now before there are some American football-type claims landing on the IRB’s desk from players who have been injured in the course of the game and to this end the IRB has gone about sanitising the game.

You are no longer able to ruck somebody who is deliberately lying on the wrong side of the ball at the breakdown – this was due to the fact that there were one or two unsavoury incidents and nasty head injuries as studs and players’ boots ended up on the wrong part of the body.

Now an integral part of the game has been removed and the sport has suffered as a result. Since then, the IRB has turned its attention to spear tackling, which in its most extreme form is very dangerous and I suppose the body had to act.

It is very difficult when legislating, though, as its directive goes to penalise a player with the ultimate sanction if he shows deliberately or otherwise to have no regard for the ball carrier’s safety as he lets him go in the act of the tackle.

In a contact game when you are trying to knock lumps out of your opposition, it is a very delicate skill to try in one act to empty somebody and one millisecond later gently drop him to the ground so that he is not hurt from an impact which his own speed and volition brought about that exact tackle.

Victim

Warburton, whose excellence throughout this World Cup drew many plaudits, was a victim of his own extraordinary talent.

His anticipation in knowing that Vincent Clerc was coming in off the wing and taking a flat pass from Dimitri Yachvili was a sign of his wonderful intuition. He was there waiting for Clerc before the winger could even receive the ball.

The Frenchman had just time to catch the ball before Warburton hit him. The impact launched him upwards and, unfortunately, his equilibrium tipped his feet and legs above shoulder height. Warburton released his arms as the player came down but this only exacerbated the contact.

If players are to avoid the spear tackle and it is obvious that Warburton’s sole intention was to stop Clerc and look for the ball, they either have to drive the player back and fall with the ball carrier if his momentum carries him upwards.

This is a difficult thing to do in a millisecond in a high-octane contact sport and I think, despite the IRB’s best intentions, it is nearly impossible to limit the extent of the contact. If leaving it in law, where a red is the only sanction, then the interpretation of the referee is the sole arbiter and Rolland had no choice.

Yet I would say that decision would grate with Rolland’s conscience for as a player and a fairly fierce tackler himself, Rolland would have understood the dynamics of that particular contact as a former player and would have found it difficult, but he felt compelled to issue the red.

My only question in relation to this controversial issue would have been if Richie McCaw, the captain of the New Zealand All Blacks and the darling of the host nation, had made that tackle, what would have happened then?

The answer is that the master has too much experience, guile and craft and, unlike the callow Welsh youth, he would have affected the tackle in no less devastating fashion – but he would have made sure that it would have been carried out within the rules as recently stipulated.

The next problem for the IRB is one of consistency as we wait for the next spear/ tipping tackle to come about, which, in a game of car crash intensity, won’t be too far away.

In the meantime, sales of Alain Rolland dartboards are |doing a brisk trade with our Celtic cousins over |the Irish Sea.