Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Ref was right to show red card to Warburton

Sam Warburton was sent off against France in the World Cup semi-final

It should have been a weekend to celebrate all that's great in rugby but, good as New Zealand were — and they were awesome — the penultimate phase of the competition will be remembered for one game-changing, history-shaping decision by a referee.

However much Wales have already replaced David Burnett with Alain Rolland as the definitive ‘blind Irish referee' (Burnett had the audacity to send off Paul Ringer against England back in 1980), the issue is not whether Rolland called it right when he sent off Sam Warburton, but whether the game he interprets as well as any other match official served him well.

Let's be clear from the off — it is not Rolland who is on trial here but the game itself.

Despite the litany of abuse coming his way, the brilliant Irish referee applied the law to the letter, according to the instructions laid down by the IRB and reinforced in advance of this tournament by referees chief Paddy O'Brien.

At an IRB high performance seminar ahead of the World Cup, referees were advised to start at a red card and work back for these types of dangerous tackles (involving a player being lifted off the ground).

I guess it's called zero tolerance, but the rationale of starting with the death penalty and working back to mitigating circumstances escapes me. Surely the logic of yellow card, to be followed if deemed necessary by action from the citing officer, seems a much more logical and sensible way to go?

The instruction, as I understand it, is that referees “should not make their decision based on what they consider was the intention of the offending player but on the objective assessment (as per Law 10.4) of the circumstances governing the tackle”.

Rolland acted in the utmost good faith, in what he believed to be the best interest of the game — immediate and longer term — and with great conviction and authority.

I'm not too sure every other top official would have made the same call given the context, irrespective of the mandate.

But what I would question is the speed with which the decision was made. The immediate reaction of the French players hardly helped the offending player's plight and perhaps influenced the call then made.

Zero tolerance can still be applied after both touch judges are consulted.

They might have had little to contribute in this case given the close proximity of the referee to the action, but they might just have had a different take or modified perspective on the foul.

Being assertive is one thing but when the lingering doubt is of justice unfairly applied (or am I in the minority on that count?) then there are serious issues still to be addressed.

And before the moralists mount their high horses, as someone involved in underage coaching, I appreciate the challenge to win the hearts and minds of parents new to the game.

My paramount concern is with safety and, while I appreciate the message from Wellington to the rest of the watching world, there is still a feeling that more needs to be done.

Why should technology be applied only to goal-area decisions? Who decided that and why?

Tell me that what transpired less than a quarter of the way into Saturday's World Cup semi-final was any less critical than any other try/no try goal-line decision throughout this World Cup.

I've heard it suggested that extending the brief of the TMO further into the field would detract from the role of the main match official. On the contrary, it would enhance it to the benefit of the game.

The feeling on Saturday was that of judge, jury and sentence all being handed down within seconds through — and again I emphasise this point strongly — little fault on the part of the match official, who was acting according to IRB guidelines and strict adherence to pre-tournament instructions.

I accept the issue is the crime and not the perpetrator and yet there lingers that uncomfortable feeling that somehow the guilty party (Warburton) became more of a victim than the player sinned against (Vincent Clerc).

I understand the motive for the strength of the message the IRB wants to send out.

Warburton's tackle was dangerous and unquestionably merited a yellow card but even the length of the suspension (three weeks), allied to the tone of the judicial statement, suggests a disciplinary committee uncomfortable with its findings and self-enforced sanctions.

There are two real issues to come out of this and both have potentially positive ramifications for the future well-being of the game.

Firstly, the spotlight on this costly tackle will make rugby players everywhere think a little more than before, and that is no bad thing.

But allied to that will, I hope, be a willingness on the part of the game's administrators to re-examine the role of technology in the dual pursuit of safety and fair play.

If the technology is available then why not use it, particularly if it means the ultimate outcome of whatever time it takes is the administration of justice?

That way, justice is seen to be done.

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