Law discussion: Grabbed by the hair
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Just before half-time in the match between South Africa and Australia in Bloemfontein, there was an incident that provoked a great outburst of emotion.
South Africa wins a line-out on their left near the Australian 22. They move the ball to the right across the 22. After three tackles, the ball comes back to scrumhalf Ross Cronje. He passes a long pass to right wing Dyllin Leyds, who is near the touchline on his right and hemmed in by Australian defenders. This is still near the Australian 22-metre line.
The Australia nearest to Leyds is tall Israel Folau, the Australian fullback. He reaches out and grabs Leyds at the back of his neck. He has his collar briefly but he ends pulling on Leyds' longish hair. Pulling on Leyds' hair pulls Leyds' head back sharply and he grimaces. Eben Etzebeth, the Springbok captain rushes in with angry intent, pushing Folau to the ground. Kurtley Beale of Australia rushes in and attacks Etzebeth.
The South African crowd is incensed.
Players gather in anger but eventually, it all simmers down. The referee consults his assistant briefly, then calls the Australian captain, Michael Hooper. The referee explains to Hooper that there has been a high tackle that will be penalised. He says that Leyds was grabbed by the hair.
As he walks away from Hooper, the referee asks the TMO if he has "anything else". The TMO says No, and the referee then calls Etzebeth to him, telling him about the high tackle and the penalty against Australia. But he also reprimands Etzebeth for charging in the way he did and warns that such an act can see a penalty reversed.
The reason for the penalty: Law 10.4 (e) Dangerous tackling. A player must not tackle an opponent early, late or dangerously.
Sanction: Penalty kick
A player must not tackle (or try to tackle) an opponent above the line of the shoulders even if the tackle starts below the line of the shoulders. A tackle around the opponent’s neck or head is dangerous play.
Sanction: Penalty kick
South Africa kicks the ball out for a line-out just over five metres from the Australian goal-line.
Play goes on without further incident.
After the match, no further action is taken. In other words, there was no citing.
SANZAAR has three citing commissioners who are labelled independent in that they are not SANZAAR employees. The three are Scott Nolan of Australia, Mike O'Leary of New Zealand and Freek Burger of South Africa. O'Leary is relatively new on the job, having taken the New Zealand place of experienced Steve Hinds who in July this year became the manager of World Rugby's citing process. The citing commissioner for Saturday's match was O'Leary, as it is SANZAAR's policy that a citing commissioner not be from either of the two countries in the match, and so this match, between Australia and South Africa, had the New Zealand citing commissioner.
In SANZAAR matches, teams do not cite but they can refer an incident to the citing commissioner for his investigation. The teams have four hours from the end of the match to refer an incident to the citing commissioner. If the citing commissioner does cite a player, he must do so within 12 hours of the end of the match.
The rough criterion for a citing is if the incident would have warranted a sending off (red card).
There was no citing for any incident in this match.
The referee's reaction to the hair-pull may well have played a part with the citing commissioner's decision not to cite. If the referee had yellow-carded Folau, the citing commissioner would almost certainly have examined the case clearly. But the referee, who had seen what had happened., had not even called Folau to him for a talking to, which was surprising. He also found no need to require a replay of the incident or a discussion with the TMO. The referee was very much the man in charge.
Not that the citing commissioner is bound by what the referee does or does not do. The SANZAAR protocol on citing says: "Citing Commissioners act independently of the match officials; for example, a player who receives a yellow card during the course of the match can still be cited if the Citing Commissioner believes the yellow card was an insufficient punishment and the offence met the red card test."
What Folau did was wrong. It was not just the wrong of a knock-on or an offside. After all attacking a player above the line of the shoulder is, in law, dangerous as it goes to the welfare and safety of the player.
The squabbling that broke out may well have been a distraction for the referee as Will Genia and then Hooper was keen to point to Etzebeth's attack on Folau.
Not that two wrongs make a right.
It would not have been beyond the scope of the law for both Folau and Etzebeth to have been carded. Beale was also not wholly innocent in the proceedings.
It was an ugly incident in an otherwise honourable match, one that was detrimental to the game of rugby football.
PS, How bizarre was the statement by the Australian coach, Michael Cheika, that Folau had not grabbed Leyds' hair? How odd, too, that he is allowed his regular public criticism of referee decisions.