After a weekend of scintillating attacking rugby and truly unforeseen results, it is a shame that the primary talking point for many commentators remains the officiating of the tackle area. Debate around the issue has been fraught and, in Michael Cheika’s case, unnecessarily aggressive. Nevertheless, it is a topic that merits discussion as many believe rugby is undergoing a truly fundamental reshaping.

Most concede the decisions have been below par. According to Tony Brown, Assistant Coach of Japan and former All Black, “it’s been pretty poor so far, I think, rightly so, the criticism was deserved. We’ll see what happens from here.”

Indeed, World Rugby’s own press release last week read, “performances over the opening weekend were not consistently of the standards set by World Rugby and themselves.”

What has been shameful, however, is the confrontational undermining of referees coming from some quarters – the Australian camp most blatantly. Referees have to make decisions and as rugby is collectively attempting to remould the way in which the tackle is policed mistakes are inevitable. Berating those that make them is not helpful.

The Samu Kerevi incident at the weekend was one of those decisions in which the referee made an error, and whilst Cheika was understandably enraged, his comments were unnecessary:

“It was pretty funny because I thought I had seen that tackle before. It could have been Reece Hodge [incorrect, because whilst Patchell’s was high the Hodge collision was direct and with far greater force] … as a rugby player, as a former player, I am embarrassed about that. I don’t know the rules anymore.”

If Cheika doesn’t know the rules and still assumes a right to criticise then it says far more about him than it does the decision in question. Likewise, Samu Kerevi stating, “the way rugby is going, I might as well join the NRL next, seeing how they police it,” is equally unhelpful.

Kerevi did go on to strike a more conciliatory tone, saying “it’s a hard decision for the referees, I understand that, I guess I just have to change my technique and the way I run. I respect what the referees decide, and I have to move on from that.”

Personally, I believe the Kerevi decision was incorrect. The emphasis from World Rugby should place the obligation on the tackler to ensure the collision takes place at a safe height; forcing players to run in an unnatural position would be ridiculous.

However, the Reece Hodge incident was a blatant red and so while the Australians have a right to demand consistency, they must also appreciate that in high pressure situations mistakes are made and you have to take the rough with the smooth. Had Hodge been sent off and Yato remained on the pitch Fiji may well have gone on to win the game and Australia could now be facing elimination.

Ultimately, whilst Cheika may be raging at the officials, he would better advised to direct his anger at his own decision making. Starting Will Genia and Bernard Foley at half back for the Wales game was an unforgivable error.

Whether it was borne out of misjudgement or sentimentality, neither have been carrying any form, and so picking the 175 cap pair in the pool’s most testing game was ridiculous. The mistake from Poite did not lose Australia the game, and they were also relatively lucky to avoid tackle sanctions on two other occasions in the match.

On the same issue, England’s Courtney Lawes, a player renowned for making crunching hits, put to dead the ridiculous suggestion that stopping players colliding with an opponent’s head is making the game ‘soft.’

“You don’t need to hit somebody high to make a big shot. Plenty of players have shown that throughout rugby. They’ve got every right to make the game safer and most players aren’t intentionally trying to hurt each other.”

That is the kind of straight forward acceptance of the changes World Rugby is making, with the admirable aim of reducing concussions, that Cheika should try to emulate.

Written by Joe Ronan

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