What a time to have to make a potential match changing call – almost 20 minutes into a Rugby World Cup semi-final between Wales and France – Irish referee, Alain Rolland, sends off the Welsh captain, Sam Warburton, for a spear tackle. Wales went on to lose 8 – 9 in a very tight and hard fought game and needless to say, the major talking point was the red card.
Ireland has a vested interest in this particular tackle, as a very deliberate version of same happened in the opening minutes of a Lions Test with the All Blacks when two Kiwis combined to deliberately spear Irelands golden boy and skipper, Brian O Driscoll, into the ground, seriously injuring him and very nearly finishing his playing career. The referee in that incident took no action and the Lions lost their tour skipper and key player to a deliberate and malicious foul. Losing the test series could also be pinned to the incident. The controversy raised by this internationally brought attention to the spear tackle and now it is proscribed in the Rules and if deemed such by the match referee, an automatic red card offence is the penalty.
In todays match, Warburton, a dynamic young Welsh skipper, was seen to lift and upend Clerc before dropping him to the ground. Fortunately, he was not injured but without hesitation, Alain Rolland had flashed the red card and Wales were down to 14 men, with c.60 minutes still to play. The referee was following the directions laid down by the head of the International Rugby Board referees grouping, Paddy O Brien, who are responsible for the practical implementation of the Rules of the game. Yes, it was a game changer. Yes, it wasn’t a deliberate or malicious tackle. And yes, Warburton is not a dirty player – but the rules are the rules and he must accept them.
Debate is now raging around the rugby world about the rights and wrongs of this ruling and it was interesting to hear the two way spilt on RTE’s panel – George Hook and Tom Mc Gurk agreeing with the decision and Brent Pope and Frankie Sheahan saying it was a yellow card offence. I have to say, it is my opinion dangerous tackles must be eliminated from the game and even though in this case it seems a bit harsh, the correct decision was taken. The split in the RTE panel will probably be reflected through the rugby clubs around Ireland, but Pope and Sheahan will have almost 90% support across Wales, where a major injustice has been perpetrated on their Red Dragons by a half Irish/Frenchman!
Spear tackles have caused controversy for a long number of years and potentially could result in a very serious injury – broken neck, spinal or head trauma – and need to taken out of the game. For a defending player to lift, upturn and drop or drive the tackled player to the ground is a deliberate move requiring strength and determination to bring it off. With TV being so integral to the game nowadays, every phase of play and every tackle can be viewed over and over, from different angles with very little escaping the viewer. High tackles, spear tackles, taking players in the air and other dangerous aspects in the tackle area are closely monitored by the referees and touch judges and it is in the best interest of the game worldwide, that they are penalised and eliminated.
This game was there to be won by the Welsh – a penalty (1 from 3) by James Hook and an opportunist try by Mike Williams to 3 well taken penalties by Morgan Parra (3 from 3) was the scoring record, but scarcely reflected the game. France were poor, created virtually nothing while Wales missed out on 11 points from kicks and 3 missed dropped goals in a game they shouldn’t have really been in, if France had capitalised on their advantage in numbers. Again, the better team lost, not because they lost their skipper controversially, but because they couldn’t convert their chances.
France now await the winner of Australia and New Zealand for their 3rd Rugby World Cup Final on Sunday 23rd October. Will it be 3rd time lucky and which French team will turn up? On their day, they can be mesmerising but so many times, they leave their elan behind and frustrate their supporters and rugby followers everywhere. Lets hope for the sake of Rugby Football, the real France turns up this time and makes a memorable game of it.
I am proud that Alain Rolland had the ballons to make a very brave call in the cauldron of a major game – the game needs referees who have the courage of their convictions and it was no fluke that he was the man in the middle for the 2007 Final. Well done Alain Rolland.