Law discussion: Seeing Red
The heightened awareness of the danger of head injuries led to a recent promulgation and law change on the matter by World Rugby.
The most obvious incident in Saracen's match with Exeter Chiefs happened just short of 11 minutes into the match in which both victim and perpetrator (one of the perpetrators at least) suffered. The victim (Geoff Parling) was taken off on a mobile stretcher and the perpetrator (Richard Barrington) sent off with a red card.
Exeter Chiefs win the ball back from a tackle/ruck and scrumhalf Will Chudley passes to lock Geoff Parling on his right. Brad Barritt, the Saracens inside centre, flies at Parling and his swinging left arm goes around Parling's neck, jerking his head back. Parling is sinking down when his head makes heavy contact with the right shoulder of prop Richard Barrington. Parling falls heavily to ground, apparently unconscious.
The referee stops play and consults the TMO. There are several replays of the incident while medics are attending to Parling, which took some 10 minutes.
The referee then sums up what he has seen – the high tackle by Barritt and the contact with Barrington's shoulder. He decides that the Barrington shoulder had been the more serious offence – direct contact with Parling's head and with force. He then shows Barrington a red card and apologises for doing so.
At no stage is there consideration of intent but rather a focus on what happened, which is wise though the World Rugby statement speaks of "knew or should have known". If you look at the incident it would seem that Barrett is full of intent and has every opportunity to adjust his line of attack, Barrington far, far less so. After all it is Barrett's action that pulls tall Parling's head down to the level of Barrington's shoulder.
The commentator's speak of "out of control" which is probably a translation of the "reckless" which World Rugby uses.
World Rugby's Statement
From 3 January, two new categories of dangerous tackles will carry penalty offences to deter and eradicate high tackles:
A player is deemed to have made reckless contact during a tackle or attempted tackle or during other phases of the game if in making contact, the player knew or should have known that there was a risk of making contact with the head of an opponent, but did so anyway. This sanction applies even if the tackle starts below the line of the shoulders. This type of contact also applies to grabbing and rolling or twisting around the head/neck area even if the contact starts below the line of the shoulders.
Minimum sanction: Yellow card
Maximum sanction: Red card
When making contact with another player during a tackle or attempted tackle or during other phases of the game, if a player makes accidental contact with an opponent's head, either directly or where the contact starts below the line of the shoulders, the player may still be sanctioned. This includes situations where the ball-carrier slips into the tackle.
Minimum sanction: Penalty
Law 10.4 (e) Dangerous tackling of an Opponent including: (i) a tackle or attempted tackle above the line of the shoulders even if the tackle starts below the line of the shoulders; (ii) grabbing and rolling/twisting around the head/neck area even if the contact starts below the line of the shoulders.
Lower End – 2 weeks
Medium Range – 6 weeks
Top End – 10+ weeks
(A dangerous tackle which results in a strike to the head shall result in at least a mid-end entry point sanction six weeks)
The dubious side of the referee's decision is that he did not take further sanction against Barritt, whose tackle was high and reckless and would surely have qualified for at least a yellow card.
It seems that the referee was considered wise for not sending Barritt off as preserved the match as a contest for sake of paying spectators.
The law tells the referee that he has to apply the laws fairly but it does not say that he is required to bend laws to ensure an entertaining contest.
The one good thing that came out of it was the reaction of the players.
There was no infantile pushing and shoving by angry Exeter Chiefs and clear distress from the start by the Saracens players and when Parling was being wheeled off an obviously solicitous Barrington went to him in a contrite gesture.
And then the Saracens coaches also accepted the red card as a fair decision.
In the match, there were altogether five cases of head damage.