Con­fu­sion over Owen Far­rell’s tackle is wide­spread and un­der­stand­able

The Guardian Australia - - Sport - Paul Rees

When Kurt­ley Beale was asked this week about Owen Far­rell’s chal­lenge on An­dré Ester­huizen, his first thought was to glance in the di­rec­tion of Aus­tralia’s me­dia of­fi­cer. The Wal­la­bies’ play­maker clearly had a view, but with Twick­en­ham their fi­nal des­ti­na­tion this month, it needed to be placed in a diplo­matic bag.

Beale, like other play­ers, coaches and fans, was con­fused. He pointed out that a few years ago Far­rell’s tackle was un­likely to have been deemed fair as the out­side-half led with his shoul­der and made a cur­sory ef­fort at best to wrap his left arm around the Spring­bok re­place­ment. It would have mer­ited a penalty at least with a card of ei­ther colour an op­tion.

Beale’s ex­pres­sion said more than his words. His call for con­sis­tency ap­plies not just to ref­er­ees, who at least have the ben­e­fit of video re­plays to de­ter­mine the height of tack­les, but ad­min­is­tra­tors whose di­rec­tives have the ef­fect of plac­ing a cer­tain type of chal­lenge in the spot­light and rel­e­gat­ing oth­ers to the shad­ows.

Beale may have had a match in mind when he be­trayed his in­credulity, Eng­land’s World Cup group match with Aus­tralia at Twick­en­ham in 2015. Beale was on the pitch when Far­rell was sent to the sin-bin 10 min­utes from the end for a tackle on Matt Giteau which was sim­i­lar to his one on Ester­huizen. He led with his right shoul­der, but there was no at­tempt to use his left arm and Aus­tralia’s cen­tre was not in pos­ses­sion of the ball when he was hit.

The ref­eree Romain Poite was minded to restrict his pun­ish­ment to a penalty but, after prompt­ing from the tele­vi­sion match of­fi­cial Shaun Velds­man, up­graded it to a yel­low card. He pointed out that Far­rell had led with his shoul­der and that Giteau did not have the ball. In ap­ply­ing his sanc­tion, Poite told Far­rell he had not watched the ball.

What is most in­ter­est­ing about the in­ci­dent is what Poite and Velds­man did not dis­cuss. Al­most si­mul­ta­ne­ously as Far­rell wiped out Giteau, Sam Burgess moved in on Michael Hooper.

The Aus­tralia flanker dropped the ball be­fore Burgess caught him around the jaw with a swing­ing left arm. While Giteau re­mained on the ground, re­quir­ing treat­ment, Hooper im­me­di­ately got to his feet and played on.

The tele­vi­sion re­plays fo­cused more on Burgess’s chal­lenge than Far­rell’s, but the match of­fi­cials seemed obliv­i­ous to it and the cen­tre, in what was his fi­nal ap­pear­ance for Eng­land be­fore end­ing his so­journ in union and re­turn­ing to rugby league, was not even spo­ken to.

To­day the fo­cus would have been on Burgess whose act now war­rants a manda­tory red card after a di­rec­tive last December on chal­lenges that made di­rect con­tact with the head with force. His tackle was high, above the shoul­ders, and he hit an op­po­nent’s head. Hooper ducked slightly into con­tact, but that is no ex­cuse now when the em­pha­sis is on get­ting play­ers to go lower into the tackle. Far­rell would prob­a­bly get no more than a fin­ger wagged at him be­cause his chal­lenge was below Giteau’s shoul­ders.

Con­sis­tency is al­ways an is­sue. In 2014 the Wales full-back Liam Wil­liams prevented Cor­nal Hen­dricks from scor­ing a try with a no-arms chal­lenge on the South Africa wing that knocked him into touch as he dived for the line. A year later in the Euro­pean Cham­pi­ons Cup semi-fi­nal be­tween Clermont Au­vergne and Sara­cens Chris Ash­ton prevented Napo­lioni Nalaga from scor­ing a try with a no-arms chal­lenge as the wing dived for the line.

Wil­liams con­ceded a penalty try but did not re­ceive a card al­though his shoul­der made con­tact with the head of the div­ing Hen­dricks who needed treat­ment for a bleed­ing nose. Ash­ton hit his op­po­nent’s shoul­der rather than head: the in­ci­dent was re­viewed and there was no sanc­tion.

The au­thor­i­ties have been fire­fight­ing in re­cent years, sin­gling out var­i­ous acts as they look to re­duce the num­ber of head in­juries. It has worked to an ex­tent: tip tack­ling has be­come rare after a spate of red cards, and there are few in­ci­dents now of a player putting his hand near the eyes of an op­po­nent. Red cards proved a de­ter­rent, but high tack­les in­volve more than the ed­u­ca­tion of play­ers.

A sur­vey of the last World Cup showed that 25% of the in­juries sus­tained dur­ing the tour­na­ment oc­curred in the tackle (a high tackle is four times as likely to lead to a head in­jury as­sess­ment as one that is below the shoul­ders). Be­tween 1985 and 2015, the av­er­age weight of a player in­creased by more than two stone (14.3kg). For­wards be­came pro­por­tion­ately heav­ier than backs who in the last World Cup had a 25% higher in­jury rate than for­wards.

In 2012 a re­port con­cluded that suc­cess­ful teams in the World Cup tended to have the tallest backs and the heav­i­est for­wards but as the game has speeded up big is not as ben­e­fi­cial at for­ward. South Africa and France have the heav­i­est packs among the tier-one na­tions: 10 of the 13 for­wards fielded by the Spring­boks at Twick­en­ham last week­end topped 18st, but it did not ul­ti­mately prove an ad­van­tage. They, like France, have been un­suc­cess­ful for a while.

A med­i­cal con­fer­ence or­gan­ised by World Rugby this month heard that while the num­ber of rucks and ballin-play time had in­creased over the past five years, the over­all in­ci­dence of in­jury had not. “That means the sport’s med­i­cal stan­dards and in­jurypre­ven­tion pro­grammes in elite adult rugby are hav­ing a sig­nif­i­cantly pos­i­tive im­pact,” said the gov­ern­ing body’s chief med­i­cal ex­am­iner, Dr Martin Raf­ferty.

He added that in­ves­ti­ga­tions into re­duc­ing in­jury risk were con­tin­u­ing, with chang­ing player be­hav­iour in the tackle a pri­or­ity, but is the time com­ing when some­thing more fun­da­men­tal needs to be looked at? The size of the pitch? The num­ber of play­ers on the field? The use of nu­tri­tional sup­ple­ments?

Whether Far­rell’s chal­lenge on Ester­huizen mer­ited a penalty, and it would un­der a Rugby Foot­ball Union trial start­ing this week, it did not be­long in any in­jury-pre­ven­tion pro­gramme. If low­er­ing the tackle height has the same ef­fect as the clam­p­downs on tip-tack­ling and eye con­tact, it should spawn more off-load­ing, more space for backs to op­er­ate in, ex­pose over-bulky play­ers and en­cour­age the likes of Chris­tian Wade, who turned his back on the game be­cause he felt he was not big enough.

• This is an ex­tract from our weekly rugby union email, the Break­down. To sub­scribe just visit this page and fol­low the in­struc­tions.

Owen Far­rell’s con­tro­ver­sial tackle on An­dré Ester­huizen of South Africa in the fi­nal mo­ments at Twick­en­ham. Pho­to­graph: Adam Davy/PA

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