Brilliant rugby was played again in Round 2 of the Super Rugby Pacific, and it was another round of games to confirm my pre-season suspicions that things are going to be terribly tight towards the middle of the table.
Only three teams remain unbeaten – and the Queensland Reds can thank their lucky stars for being one of those three teams. A ball bounce or two differently, and it could easily have been the NSW Waratahs in that group. As it stands, the ‘Tahs are an unearned inclusion in the top four after two rounds.
It was great to see the Fijian Drua in action up close. Although the 42-3 score line at Canberra suggests otherwise, I’ve seen enough to recognize that a fairly practical rugby team is bubbling beneath the surface. The game in which everything clicks into place for the Drua will be a game to watch.
But in the game came another curious case of the officials on the pitch defending themselves from taking further action against what seemed for all intents and purposes to be a rather clearly dangerous tackle.
It came as Tom Banks had just sliced through the Fijian Drua defense in the 13th minute, resulting in a 60-yard special that bore almost chilling similarities to the one he scored against the Crusaders last season. ; same movement, same hole, same mannequin sold at the back, same result.
But as soon as Andy Muirhead got his pass for Banks, he found himself flipped and landed on his back, after making contact with winger Drua Vinaya Habosi.
Watching it live I saw the contact with Muirhead, but not the aftermath, as we followed Banks and Tom Wright out as they fled for the tryout. It wasn’t until refereeing rookie Reuben Keane asked for time off – and with replays to come on stadium screens – that we realized just how dramatic that consequence really was.
“Test is good, just want to check for potential foul play in the back game there,” Keane can be heard saying.
“OK, we’ll check that out for you now,” responds TMO Brett Cronin.
Watching all of this, the Stan Sport commentators were having conversations similar to the ones we were having on ABC Sport. Andrew Swain made much the same comment as me: “It doesn’t look good for Habosi.”
Keane can be seen watching the replays on the big screen and says “OK the player has clearly gone over the horizontal, I just want to see a landing spot.”
???? Muirhead RETURNS! ????
Should there have been a card given out for this? ??????????
— Stan Sport Rugby (@StanSportRugby) February 26, 2022
Muirhead landed on his back and was probably very lucky that it was. It’s scary to consider the possibilities if it had landed on your shoulder and neck, or neck and head. At this point, I couldn’t see how it was going to end with anything other than a yellow card. And even then, only the touchdown was likely what removed him from a red card. All the signs were there.
But then the officials’ conversation took a turn.
Assistant referee Damon Murphy is heard asking, “Is that the white player jumping in?”
Now, on the face of it, I really don’t mind a senior AR with a lot of experience in the middle – Murphy did the Waratahs-Reds game in Sydney the night before – offering advice on a matter, particularly to a referee during of his first game. .
But it felt like more than that. It looked like an AR taking over.
Murphy: “He jumped into the tackle, OK, that’s what I mentioned. If white doesn’t jump into the tackle, that tackle doesn’t happen, okay?
Murphy: “So for me, at worst it’s a penalty, you play the try. I don’t think it’s a yellow card because I don’t think the player caused this problem.”
“Keane: ‘OK, I think that’s fair.’
TMO Cronin: “I’m also in alliance with ‘Murph’.”
“Okay,” Keane replies.
“So White 11 jumped into the tackle, causing the momentum to take him over, okay? So at worst we’re at the penalty spot, but the try will hold, and we’ll go for the conversion. Are we all d ‘OK ?”
Cronin: “I’m okay with that.”
It really looked like Keane had been deterred from the avenue he was leading, and worst of all was the thought that without Muirhead’s action the tackle wouldn’t have happened.
And that’s clearly nonsense, because even if Muirhead leaps into contact in order to take the hit around his stomach, rather than his chest, that reasoning still completely ignores that Vinaya Habosi has wrapped his arms around and twitched. lifted after contact. Surely position in contact played as much of a role in Muirhead’s turnaround, as Muirhead’s preparation for contact?
Nowhere in that conversation was the tackler’s responsibility to the tackler mentioned, a point Brumbies captain Allan Ala’alatoa brought up after Keane explained their decision.
“Do you still have to take care of him?” asked Ala’alatoa. He got no response.
There are several foul play laws that could have been covered, and while there is a question of whether Habosi lifted Muirhead or not (Law 9.18), at the very least Law 9.17 applies:” A player must not tackle, charge, shoot, push, or grab an opponent whose feet are off the ground.
The Brumbies clearly went no further and no further legal action resulted. We are constantly told that there is a duty of care from the tackler to the ball carrier, but that was completely ignored in this case.
After the game, coach Dan McKellar could only call for consistency. “If it happens to us next week and the penalty is enough, then OK,” he replied when asked about the incident.
“If it’s not egregious foul play, then we move on.”
As always, consistency remains the issue. There would be plenty of examples of tackles just as accidental as Habosi’s that resulted in a card and suspension, even when players leap into the collision as they prepare for impact. There are certainly a lot of cards dealt for accidental contact with the legs of a player catching a high ball.
If he walks, talks and looks like a dangerous tackle, we’re told, it’s probably a dangerous tackle. Yet this time it was Muirhead’s fault because of how he prepared for the impact? I do not really understand.
And I’m far from convinced that Habosi’s actions played no part in landing Muirhead flat on his back, either.
But again, that also makes perfect sense.
Italian substitute hooker Hame Faiva was sent off in the Six Nations defeat to Ireland at the weekend for a tackle that looked eerily similar to Welsh flanker Taine Basham’s first-round tackle from Scotland’s Sam Skinner.
Both tackles saw the initial point of contact on the shoulder and then on the head. Both tackles involved wrapping the arms after initial contact. Faiva was sent off – rightly so, I might add – but Basham was only penalized for allegedly insufficient strength and the wrapping action.
Faiva will most likely get a lengthy suspension, but Basham started both games afterwards and sits second on the tackles completion stat sheet for the tournament.
Inconsistency too often brings all the good work undone. On the one hand, World Rugby and the national unions and professional competitions want to show they are serial on dangerous tackles and high contacts, but on the other hand the processes allow for too many incidents to be too often watered down.
This should be easier for players, coaches, fans and broadcasters to understand, but it remains as gray as ever and with no obvious solution in sight.
Everyone involved in the game wants consistency, but it’s the game itself that sets the stage to undermine it.