Monday, 17 October 2011

A Red Mists Descends

I'm Welsh, so I can rightfully be accused of being biased. I am proud of my team's performances at Rugby World Cup 2011 - they played with passion, strength and flair. They gave it their all in preparation and execution and deserved more from the tournament than they got.

What they got was determined by a single decision by one of the world's best referee's, Alain Rolland. After just 18 minutes into the game, the Welsh Captain, Sam Warburton, upended the French winger, Vincent Clerc, with a dangerous tackle. 

That much we can all agree on. From there, French fury inflamed the situation and the referee, without calming things down, immediately reached for a red card and sent Warburton off.

In the context of modern day rugby where minor percentage differences between two sides can mean heavy defeats, the average advantage created by a 10 minute sin binning is 10 points to the non-offending side. In this context, Rolland's split-second decision meant Wales had to play for 62 minutes without a player. In the context of the sport generally, it is hard to recall when a player got summarily dismissed for such an offence.

This just happened to be the RWC semi-final and less than a quarter in. The final will be watched by over 1 billion people worldwide. So the burden of responsibility in the wider sense was for the referee to ensure that the two most worthy teams get into the final. A moment's pause may have got the full perspective considered.

As it happens, France, having been defeated already by hosts New Zealand and by lowly Tonga in the Group stages, will again meet New Zealand in the final. Effectively, yesterday's semi-final between New Zealand and Australia became the final - as New Zealand newspapers pointed out before that game - "80 minutes and we're laughing."

But don't listen to a jaundiced Welsh fan. On the day, Lawrence Dallaglio and Francois Pienaar highlighted that rugby is not a 'Contact Sport - Ballet is a contact sport. Rugby is a Collision Sport'. And they should know - they have played on the winning side in World Cup finals.

The fact that Warburton was physically bigger than Clerc caused the tackle to go 'dangerous' not the intent of the player. And dirty or dangerous play is all about intent. I can say that, having played the game for over 20 years myself as intent is the same at any level of the sport.

The referee, with all that experience and advice at hand, should have seen that inbalance in physical dimensions between the two players and considered it. He should have calmed the players down before considering his decision. He should have at least consulted his two on field deputies before making his decision.

Instead, a red mist descended over Alain Rolland's eyes and he reached for the red card without any consideration to the wider implications.

Over the weekend, former and current players have voiced their outrage at Rolland's decision. As Mark Cueto, the England winger on the end a few dodgy referee decisions in his time including last RWC final, put it, 'People did not come to see you {Alain Rolland}'.

This game, perhaps this RWC, will be remembered for the fact that New Zealand will play France because the referee called it wrongly in the semi-final. New Zealand will rightfully lift this cup - they have been easily the best team in this tournament and their performance over Tri-Nation Champions, Australia, yesterday was awesome. But it would have felt better if they had defeated Wales, the form team of this RWC in the final. 

What a final that would have been.

A final note on these types of decisions. What Rolland needs to go through in his mind is the inconsistency of application of these laws. There have been three more serious 'spear tackles' in RWC 2011 and not one resulted in a red card - one did not even get a yellow card. 

And finally. This whole law got revised when Brian O'Driscoll got upended by two New Zealand players in the opening minutes of the First Test between New Zealand and the 2005 British Lions. O'Driscoll, was the Lions Captain and unquestionably the best centre in the world at the time. He dislocated his shoulder in the tackle and missed the rest of the tour.

One of the tacklers that day will take the field this RWC final. Not even a penalty was given on that particular day. The Lions went on to be clean swept by New Zealand. 

In a way, the outcome of Ma Nonu's tackle on O'Driscoll that day has had a double whammy result. Not only did he finish the tour for the Lions Captain but he indirectly caused the RWC 2011 to be guaranteed to be picked up by his team next Sunday.

Fact is sometimes more revealing than fiction.

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