Rugby: Why IRB Rugby Officiating Has Many Seeing Red

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Rugby: Why IRB Rugby Officiating Has Many Seeing Red
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Red card's are becoming increasingly hard to understand.

Rugby Canada and London Irish forward Jebb Sinclair was sent off the field with a straight red card last weekend in the late stages of Canada's International Rugby Board (IRB) test match with Scotland at BMO Field in Toronto. 

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In a situation like this, the position of the tackler is key.

The controversial decision had the effect not only of removing one of Canada's most influential players but also of overturning a Canadian penalty kick that would likely have given Canada the win. Canada would go on to lose the match by a score of 19-17

The furious Canadian crowd at BMO Field vented their anger at IRB referee Mike Fraser, but since then they have been joined by many across the global rugby community who are expressing outrage both at the specific call against Sinclair and the increasingly shambolic penalty standards surrounding tackles in general across the rugby world. 

First things first: As can be clearly seen by the match video, Sinclair made a strong upright run at the Scottish defence. Sinclair kept one arm tightly around the ball, while his other arm was pressed against his side in a non-threatening position. The Scottish tackler, Ruaridh Jackson, made an attempt to take Sinclair high, his head connecting with Sinclair's elbow. Jackson then fell unconscious to the turf.

To be sure, Sinclair dropped his shoulder, which is a perfectly acceptable tactic for a ball-carrier in rugby. His arm did extend following the hit; however, that has little to do with the initial point of contact. Jackson was injured largely because his tackling technique was flawed and because he was up against a much larger player moving at speed.

Aside from the frustrations that left Canadian rugby fans seething, what should be more broadly concerning to the global rugby community is the complete state of confusion concerning what is and is not an illegal tackle in the game today.

Canada Head Coach Kieran Crowley, whose team rightly felt they should have emerged the winners on Saturday, gave these comments to me directly after the match: "I don't know what you can do when a guy's head gets on the wrong side of an elbow. I thought it was the wrong decision but that's the way he sees it."

Crowley's concerns were quickly echoed by commentators such as former Scotland scrum-half Mike Blair, who is currently working for BBC Sport. Blair quickly came out against the decision and the message it sends to the rest of the rugby community:

Being reduced to 14 men was bad enough but in the process Canada lost the penalty in front of the posts which, if successfully converted, would have put them ahead. 

For me, it wasn't even a penalty against Sinclair and decisions like these set a dangerous precedent. 

I've seen Clermont winger Napoli Nalaga yellow-carded for 'leading with the knee' when carrying the ball. Could Sean Lamont have been put to the television match official for the lead up to the Taylor Paris head knock? In my opinion that would have been absurd but a referee has to be consistent.

Last summer during the 2013 Pacific Nations Cup in Canada, Canadian winger Matt Evans was subjected to a vicious flying shoulder to the jaw that saw him stretchered off the field. The end result was that Tongan offender David Halaifouna was given a 10-minute yellow-card penalty, while Evans was taken to hospital.

After the match Tongan head coach Mana Otai questioned whether the hit should have been a penalty at all and even went so far as to accuse the match official of racial bias.

The gap in understanding around what is or is not a legal tackle is so vast that one wonders if any two people in today's game could come to the same decision when looking at an incident.

That more than anything else is the most damning part of this discussion. How can the players make decisions on the field when the standards change from match to match and from one referee to another?

Listen to the referee clearly explain how this incident in a match between Australia and the British and Irish Lions does not constitute a penalty. The tackler's head was in the wrong position, only in that instance it was the ball-carrier who was injured:

Was the Sinclair incident so different?  If so, where was Sinclair supposed to put his elbow?

Lest you think I exaggerate the extent of the disagreement, check out this discussion forum where IRB-trained officials from around the world are discussing the incident as we speak.

Last year, I took this issue to straight to the IRB's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Martin Raftery. Dr. Raftery's reaction tells you all you need to know about where we are at on this issue today:

I know the [Matt Evans] incident. I saw it. I think you will always have people who, when they make statements, as the coach did, demonstrate that their knowledge isn’t up to speed.

As a game and as a body we have try to educate everybody at every level. Direct attacks to the head in rugby have been outlawed since the game was invented. They have been outlawed to protect the players.

The hit on Evans, however, was dealt a far less severe penalty than the one Sinclair received, merely in the act of making a run with the ball.  

No player knows the standard.

No coach knows the standard.

One wonders if any three referees in a room could agree on a standard.

As long as there is this kind of confusion over one of the most physical and potentially dangerous parts of the game, the IRB cannot even begin to profess a commitment to player welfare. 

Games have been lost.

Credibility has been lost.

In some cases, careers may have been lost.

It would behoove the IRB to take greater action on tackling standards before far more important losses begin to accumulate.


Jeff Hull is a Contributor to Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise stated, all quoted material was obtained firsthand.


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