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'We have to be cleaner than clean': Schmidt fears Rugby World Cup will be ruined by referees

England v Ireland, World Cup Warm-Up Test, Twickenham Stadium, Tomorrow, 3.00pm

Talking point: Joe Schmidt during Ireland’s training session yesterday
Talking point: Joe Schmidt during Ireland’s training session yesterday
New Zealand’s Scott Barrett is shown a red card

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

Joe Schmidt is concerned at the direction rugby's law-makers are taking the game and the Ireland coach fears inconsistent refereeing could be a major factor at the World Cup this autumn.

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Ahead of his team's second warm-up game against England at Twickenham, the highly experienced coach spoke at length about the issue.

Schmidt has been watching the field closely; tuning into the Rugby Championship and the northern hemisphere warm-up games to gauge the opposition and spot trends.

Australia's win over the All Blacks was partly influenced by Scott Barrett's red card for a high hit, while France lock Paul Gabrillagues is set to miss the tournament after being hit with a six-week ban for an illegal clear-out against Scotland.

Echoing comments from England's Eddie Jones, Schmidt outlined his concerns before leaving Portugal for London yesterday.

"There's always things that concern you. Injury is one and suspension is the other. I think there was one red card in the last World Cup, and there were 17 citings," he said. "That's a massive disconnect between what the citing commissioners were doing and what the referees thought in real time.

"So for us trying to predict what's going to happen and what decisions are going to be made - for Scott Barrett to get red and the number of other incidents in that game, you go, 'Well, that's a red, but there's a whole lot of other things missed'. It seems very extreme that it's zero or red.

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"Gabrillagues, I've only seen the replays but it looks like he gets his hands down. It doesn't look like he's looking to shoulder charge and it doesn't look like he's intentionally (leading) with his head but we know that if you get it wrong, you're in somebody else's hands, and we want to control as much of it as we can.

"In the Junior World Cup, there were 26 game-changing red and yellow cards for high tackles, and I know that World Rugby will say that we have to go after high tackles and I totally agree.

"But in those 26 game-changing cards, there wasn't a Head Injury Assessment required. Not one concussion."

World Rugby would dispute Schmidt's numbers, but his wider point is that he is not convinced that the governing body has taken the right approach by putting the onus on the tackler to go low.

"World Rugby are trying to make the game safer," he said. "I think they are trying to stamp their mark on it before we get to the World Cup and we're all on alert to say that we're going to have to be cleaner than clean.

"If you get away with it, fair play to you, but if you don't, it could be a very severe sanction and you're going to have to be very careful. Leading with the shoulder and tucking the arm, that is something that we've got to make sure we're not doing and I can understand why.

"Is going after the high tackle the safest way to do it? I don't know, because if you're the tackler you're three times more likely to get injured in the tackle than the ball-carrier and you're the guy who's being targeted.

"There's a balance there somewhere where we have to make sure that we're looking after all the players, not just the ball-carrier but also the tackler.

"It's a hard balance to get and it's a hard game to referee. There are so many variables and high-speed moments.

"Those milliseconds before contact, if you get your head down a little bit early and you don't quite see the change in movement... (Australia's) James Slipper just gets his head down a little bit early and suddenly he's connecting with (South Africa's Eben) Etzebeth's knee.

"You saw the same with (Australia's) Jordan Uelese into the hip bone, and you saw the same with (South Africa's) Faf de Klerk and (New Zealand's) Rieko Ioane.

"Again, those three tacklers, head down maybe a fraction early, there are so many high-speed variables.

"They are the three concussions that have occurred in the six games of the Rugby Championship. You're always looking at that and trying to safeguard your players, not just from being picked up for foul play, but also from getting injured.

"We want to look after players and we're trying to make sure that they can best look after themselves and have the power of choice in that tackle and leave power of choice as late as possible so that they could stay upright and grab or they can drop low and make their move as late as possible."

Schmidt is a lot less concerned about Ireland's confidence levels as they approach Twickenham to face an England side that left them 'a bit broken', in the coach's words, last February.

"Every game is a new day. We've just seen that in recent times," he said, referencing the All Blacks' reversal of their record defeat of the Wallabies and Wales' victory over England.

"We've seen those swap-arounds, that demonstrates just how different every day can be in a Test match.

"You've got Scotland playing France at the weekend and I wouldn't be surprised if that swung.

"Each week, as we get closer, I think you'll see things swing with different selections, different things being trialled.

"We trialled a few things during the Six Nations because we knew how tight this little time frame was going to be with four matches, that we didn't want to be trying to fit everything into just these four weeks.

"There's a risk of losing confidence if you don't get a result but we would be less result-focused than process-focused.

"We'd look at what we did well, what we need to do better, and whether we win or lose we're still looking at those things and trying to make sure we do things better, as well as trying to maintain and fine-tune the things we did well.

"There's only one tournament we have to go after."

How they line-up

Teams for England v Ireland at Twickenham Stadium (Saturday 3.00pm)

England: E Daly (Saracens), J Cokanasiga (Bath), M Tuilagi (Leicester), O Farrell (Saracens), J May, G Ford, B Youngs (all Leicester), J Marler (Harlequins), J George (Saracens), K Sinckler (Harlequins), M Itoje, G Kruis (both Saracens), T Curry (Sale), S Underhill (Bath), B Vunipola (Saracens). Replacements: L Cowan-Dickie (Exeter), M Vunipola (Saracens), D Cole (Leicester), C Lawes (Northampton), M Wilson (Sale), W Heinz (Gloucester), P Francis (Northampton), J Joseph (Bath).

Ireland: R Kearney, J Larmour, G Ringrose (all Leinster), B Aki (Connacht), J Stockdale (Ulster), R Byrne (Leinster), C Murray (Munster), C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster, capt), T Furlong (Leinster), I Henderson (Ulster), J Kleyn, P O'Mahony (both Munster), J Van Der Flier (Leinster), CJ Stander (Munster). Replacements: S Cronin (Leinster), J McGrath (Ulster), A Porter, D Toner (both Leinster), T Beirne (Munster), L McGrath (Leinster), J Carty (Connacht), A Conway (Munster).

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