This year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan resulted in a record number of red cards (8), due in no small part to World Rugby’s pre-tournament position that a “zero tolerance” approach to high tackles would be adopted. Following a decision-making framework for high tackles being issued in May 2019 (the “Framework”), World Rugby has become increasingly vocal in its desire to lower the height of tackles in light of three young French players tragically dying as a result of injuries suffered from high tackles.

This desire to emphasise player safety is, of course, to be welcomed. However, a close examination of the growing body of disciplinary decisions issued by World Rugby (particularly those issued during the recent World Cup) suggest that this single-minded approach – whilst certainly commendable on its facts – has resulted in unintended consequences and illogical incentives to teams faced with a player citing.

Consistency and outcome-based reasoning

The World Rugby law against dangerous tackling by itself offers little guidance as to what in fact renders a tackle “dangerous”:

9.13 A player must not tackle an opponent early, late or dangerously. Dangerous tackling includes, but is not limited to, tackling or attempting to tackle an opponent above the line of the shoulders even if the tackle starts below the line of the shoulders.

The Framework has built-in discretion in assessing the sanction a high tackle should attract. The key factor underlying that discretion is a requirement that the “degree of danger” be assessed. However, concerning levels of inconsistency arose during the World Cup, despite the rigid “zero tolerance” approach adopted pre-tournament.

Notwithstanding an extraordinary statement from World Rugby criticising its own referees for not having applied a sufficiently strict approach to high tackles in the early pool matches, several cases decided under law 9.13 show how an emphasis on a seemingly measurable mitigating factor – late downward movement of the tackled player – has nonetheless resulted in contradictory decisions:

  1. Reece Hodge offered extensive argument that late movement of the tackled player forced him into a passive “soak tackle” where he had less control over the height at which he entered contact. However, the Citing Commissioner took the view that the tackled player’s movement was “not unexpected” and that Mr. Hodge was reckless in not adjusting his tackle height considering a (split-second) movement by the tackled player. Mr. Hodge was banned for three weeks.
  2. Samoan player Rey Lee-Lo, American John Quill, and the Argentinian Tomas Lavanini all received multiple week bans under law 9.13. Notably in respect of Mr. Lavanini, the hearing panel was unwilling to overturn a real-time finding of fact by referee Nigel Owens that the tackled player (Owen Farrell) had not descended sufficiently quickly into contact to adequately mitigate the dangerousness of the tackle.
  3. However, the English centre Piers Francis successfully overturned his citing under law 9.13 by arguing that he had slowed himself heading into contact into a more vulnerable position following his opposition’s “sudden” change in height. The hearing panel relied heavily on that late change in movement and, unlike the Hodge decision, concluded that these were express mitigating factors which meant the tackle was not dangerous.

Further, outcome-based reasoning may be clouding a proper assessment of the danger of a tackle, as demonstrated by a couple of notable (non) decisions during the World Cup under the tip tackles (law 9.18):

  1. Two Argentinian players, Andrea Lovotti and Nicola Quaglio were banned for three weeks for a tip tackle on South African No. 8 Duane Vermeulen, with emphasis being placed on Vermeulen having been turned upside down and dropped on his shoulder/neck.
  2. By contrast, Welsh hooker Ken Owens received only a yellow card for a clear tip tackle against Fiji, which triggered a storm of debate. The live on-field decision rested solely on the tackled player having fallen on his back.

This suggests that seriousness is being viewed not in respect of the degree of danger created by the player but rather how that risk manifests itself – in order words, how the tackled player falls. Two tackles of identical dangerousness could even result in significantly different injuries (and therefore, different lengths of bans) depending on how injury-prone the tackled player is. That cannot be the intent of how dangerous tackles should be sanctioned.

Perverse incentives: remorse

The World Rugby regulatory framework around disciplinary decisions expressly requires that remorse is to be applied as a mitigating factor to any final sanction. Curiously, several decisions in the early stages of the tournament applied a near-uniform 50% reduction from any starting point if remorse was shown – even if the player challenged the basis of the red card. That seems an unduly lenient approach inconsistent with players accepting the consequences of their actions. The panel hearing the appeal of the Samoan player Motu Matu’u accordingly noted:

Giving a full discount of 50 per cent where the player continues to contest the extent of his wrongdoing risks discouraging players from accepting the full extent of their wrongdoing. It also risks judicialising the process of sanctions for foul play because there will be more contested hearings and appeals, none of which is desirable for the game of rugby

A worrying split in reasoning is emerging, muddying the waters for any player faced with the decision of whether to challenge the basis of their citing - particularly if the likely sanction would end their tournament. It is far from clear whether players should attempt to rely on a 50% discount come what may. This uncertainty pulls players (and unions) strongly away from the policy behind showing remorse: to accept that there are consequences for endangering fellow players.

Put it on report?

A more interventionist disciplinary system will necessarily have a material effect on the outcomes of matches. In the 36 completed pool matches of the World Cup, 33 tries were conceded by teams who had been reduced to 14 men. Arguments can also be made that Bundee Aki being ordered off against Samoa (again under law 9.13) unfairly punished him and his team by effectively “carding him out” of the tournament. That raises the question of whether a rugby league-style “reporting” system should be preferred, or whether the short-term pain of more red cards is a price worth paying for improved long-term technique.

Conclusion

Few would argue against the notion that this World Cup was one of the most entertaining ever. The rise of less physically imposing teams such as Japan and the comparatively small number of injuries resulting from dangerous play are to be applauded, and it is reasonable to connect those developments on some level to the approach taken by World Rugby to dangerous play. However, much remains to be done and the trends and consequences discussed above should be given due consideration to ensure that the intended effect of a “zero tolerance” policy does not result in unjust decisions or inequality in treatment across the rugby world.