At the weekend, the thrillingly unexpected defeat of New Zealand by Australia was aided by a controversial red card given by referee Jerome Garces to All Blacks lock Scott Barrett. Although Australia were already dominating the Blediscoe Cup match, the decision undoubtedly shifted the dynamic of the encounter in the Wallabies favour.
Since then numerous senior figures in the sport have declared their concern that new refereeing interpretations could be ruining the game. The issue of tackle height is one of the most controversial in modern rugby. Balancing desires to retain rugby’s competitive edge with those of player safety is difficult and looks set to be the defining debate in the game for the next few years.
Ultimately, World Rugby’s revised sanction framework gave Jerome Garces little choice. As Michael Hooper picked up from the breakdown and was tackled by Coles, Barrett lunged in, arm by his side, and made direct contact with his shoulder to Hooper’s head.
The Wallabies captains’ dramatic reaction aside, it was forceful, aggressive and reckless, with echoes of Sonny Bill Williams’ tackle on Anthony Watson in the 2017 Lions series.
As Garces himself said to his television match official, “he never uses his arm, he just put his shoulder and elbow to neck and head so it’s clearly dangerous, its direct, with force, so I’ve no option but to give a red card.”
Indeed, there were no protestations from Read or Barrett, and whilst it’s hard to tell whether this was simply good sportsmanship or resignation to the accuracy of the decision, it’s clear they expected the outcome. In fact, Barrett looked decidedly nervous, worried and guilty when rising from the ground after the challenge.
However, a string of high profile figures have come out to suggest the card was in fact soft. According to Eddie Jones the decision was “ridiculous.” Barrett has since been issued with a three game ban.
Jones insisted after England’s game against Wales that there were two similar challenges made by Welsh players that went unpunished, “I urge World Rugby, although I don’t think they do anything at great pace, to get some consistency in that area because otherwise we will have games being destroyed by an inconsistent official making a decision on a law that’s not clear.”
“I thought it was ridiculous,” Jones said. “A bloke gets tackled, he goes to be second man in, and his shoulder hits his head and he gets a red card. We can’t have that in the game. What I’m saying is that we need to have some consistency and common sense.”
This is a viewpoint mirrored by Scott Johnson, Wallabies director of rugby and selector, and the Australia head coach Michael Cheika, who both expressed their sympathy for Barrett.
“There’s general concern because there’s a major change, a seismic shift really in the way the game’s played and certainly the height at which the game’s expected to be played at,” said Johnson, before going on, “I watched the under-20s this year [where stricter interpretations of the law led to numerous cards] and the implication of a red card is quite dramatic in a game.”
“I like to play the game tough,” admitted Cheika after the match, “so it’s disappointing for me a player gets sent off for that, but the referees have given guidelines … he made the decision they’re required to make… I’m torn on both sides.”
Rugby must balance its obligation to the games’ competitive core, its physical, attritional, blood and guts heart, with the safety of players. The worry is, that, with the governing body lurching too far to one side, the players and coaches can’t keep up and so foul play is inevitable.
What nobody wants to see is another Sam Warburton incident, where a World Cup knock out game is ruined by a soft decision. Then again, the case of Warburton is interesting in another sense, for he is a player whose career was curtailed by injury. Debate will undoubtedly rage on, Barrett’s challenge was dangerous, but surely a yellow card could have sufficed.
Written by Joe Ronan