reader report

Rugby World Cup officials are caught between a rock and a hard place

Wallabies captain Michael Hooper was in disbelief when his teammate Samu Kerevi was penalised for a 'dangerous' fend.
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Wallabies captain Michael Hooper was in disbelief when his teammate Samu Kerevi was penalised for a 'dangerous' fend.

OPINION: The 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan is well underway. Already, and unsurprisingly, the officials and the judiciary are in the spotlight as much as the players.

Before the tournament began, head of referees Alain Rolland promised to take a hard-line stance on contact with the head. Since then, we've often seen the officials erring on the side of caution, with the exception of USA flanker John Quill who was red carded for a shoulder to the head of England's Owen Farrell.

I think the referees are caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they have been pressured by Rolland and World Rugby to take a zero tolerance stance to contact with the head, with the game's governing body even making the absolutely ridiculous step of publicly lambasting the officials after the first handful of games.

Rolland himself is no stranger to being lambasted for ruining the spectacle. He red carded former Welsh captain Sam Warburton in the 2011 World Cup semifinal against France for a tip tackle on Vincent Clerc. It was a decision that Welsh fans felt cost them the game and a chance to face the All Blacks in the final.

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* 'I may as well play NRL': Samu Kerevi on 'dangerous' fend
* High shots become high-profile at Rugby World Cup

On the other hand, there is pressure from a lot of fans who are extremely vocal in their disapproval of the use of the red card in the game.

The result is the officials are put in an impossible situation where they can't please everybody. Take action against foul play and cop backlash, or err on the side of caution and face backlash from their employers for not punishing players properly.

To further emphasise the situation facing the officials and the judiciary, former Wallabies player Stirling Mortlock publicly criticised the three-week ban handed to Australian winger Reece Hodge for an incident against Fiji. The judiciary deemed the incident met the red card threshold, but at the time it wasn't even penalised.

Hodge allegedly offered a farcical excuse for the tackle, claiming he didn't know about World Rugby's tackle guidelines which have been in place for two and a half years now.

Japan's assistant coach Tony Brown questioned why two "brutal tackles" didn't receive red cards.
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Japan's assistant coach Tony Brown questioned why two "brutal tackles" didn't receive red cards.

A few days later, former All Black Tony Brown, who is part of Japan's coaching team, questioned why two Samoan players weren't red carded during their win against Russia. Both players were given yellow cards after the TMO and the referee settled on "mitigating circumstances" instead of awarding red cards.

One of those Samoan players, Rey Lee-Lo, copped the same length of ban as Hodge.

Wallabies second-five Samu Kerevi was also penalised in the team's loss to Wales after he led with the forearm while carrying the ball into a tackle, an incident that New Zealand TMO Ben Skeen picked up on after referee Romain Poite had initially let it go.

Most people were in agreement that Skeen should never have intervened for that kind of incident, and Kerevi even quipped after the game that he "may as well go play NRL" if the game of rugby union continues on its current path.

So where do we go from here? As long as we have the status quo where World Rugby want the officials to be intolerant of foul play and some of the fans want the red card abolished or an alternative option found to "not ruin the spectacle", then the officials will always come out worse off.

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