Tim’s Thoughts: Exeter v Ulster

On Sunday evening, Exeter welcomed Ulster to Sandy Park for their penultimate pool game in this season’s Champions Cup. After an extremely entertaining 80 minutes, the Chiefs ran out 31-19 winners, ending Ulster’s chances of qualifying for the knockout stages.

In the latest installment of the Tim’s Thoughts series, here are the few thoughts I actually managed to jot down while watching the game; on the whole I got far too distracted by the quality of rugby on show.

Summer rugby… in January

January rugby is often more a game for the purists. Poor weather conditions leave pitches in a less-than-ideal state, so games at this time of year are often full of territorial kicking, short passing and frequent physical confrontations between the forward packs. This game however was an exciting affair, with both teams frequently willing to spread the ball and attack from deep. Right from the opening minutes, Ulster were cutting through the Exeter defence and even when the game evened out, it was still full of expansive play throughout. It is games like this that will draw new fans to the sport. I’m sure part of the reason for playing such an open game was to improve the chances of getting a 4 try bonus point, but with a loss ending any chance of progression it would have been understandable if the teams had played a tight game of ball control to ensure the win at all costs.

Making it look easy

My personal highlight of the game was watching the battle on the wing between Jack Nowell and Charles Piutau. A former member of Sir Gordan Tietjens’ All Blacks 7s dynasty and capped 16 times in the 15-a-side format, Piutau’s ability surely had many viewers agreeing with Ugo Monye’s musings as to whether he finds rugby easy. He certainly makes it look easy! From the step to beat Nowell for his 1st try to the collection of Paddy Jackson’s cross-field kicks for his 2nd try and scrum half David Shanahan’s almost-try, he was wowing us every time he got the ball and reminding Premiership fans what they’re missing this year. Nowell is a player who took some time to win me over, but I now consider him England’s best all-round winger and highly likely to make Warren Gatland’s British & Irish Lions squad. Though he did get stepped for Piutau’s 1st try and was perhaps caught too narrow for his 2nd, Nowell certainly gave as good as he got from the Kiwi, managing a couple of great covering tackles and also stepping him for Michele Campagnaro’s 2nd try. It felt like these two were playing their own game of rugby on the same pitch as the other 28 players. Though Exeter handily won the main game, I’ll call this matchup a draw.

The Italian Job

Italy boss Conor O’Shea must have been licking his lips watching Michele Campagnaro’s performance for the Chiefs. Injury may have limited his impact so far this season but he was making up for lost time with 2 tries and plenty of metres made against Ulster. A strong runner who consistently requires a couple of tacklers to bring him down, he brings a different dimension to an Exeter midfield that already boasts great depth in Henry Slade, Ollie Devoto and Sam Hill. Aged just 23 and with 25 caps to his name already, he is already one of the most impressive players in the Italian squad and will likely be one of the players the Azzuri hope to fill the void when iconic captain Sergio Parisse eventually retires. This is the last year of Campagnaro’s current contract and I’m sure that a few more performances like that for Exeter and Italy will have plenty of teams asking after him.

Do you think I missed anything? Want to give your opinion on anything I’ve mentioned? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

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Playing It Safe

Now that we are in January and Premiership teams are allowed to make contact with rival team’s players (although they seem to have been doing that for months), there is clearly one main topic of conversation amongst rugby fans: the new high tackle directives from World Rugby.

The new directives, which came into effect on January 3rd, have redefined the high tackle into ‘reckless’ or ‘accidental’ tackles, with a greater sanction for reckless tackles:

Reckless tackle
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

Accidental tackle
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

It’s fair to say these new directives have had a mixed response from fans so far, with a number of controversial decisions in recent weeks – including Richard Barrington’s red card against Exeter and a couple of decisions in the Scarlets v Ulster match – souring people’s opinions. It certainly feels that the interpretations of high tackles, tip tackles and aerial challenges has brought us to a point where fans spend their free time trying to come to an agreement over whether a refereeing decision is correct almost every week.

However, what must be remembered is that World Rugby are not just making these changes for the sake of change, they are doing this with player safety in mind. Modern rugby has seen a drastic increase in the size and strength of the average rugby player, so any contact will have an increased effect on a player’s body.

After a number of discussions at work about the Barrington red card, and Brad Barritt’s subsequent ban for his part in the incident, I decided (with a bit of gentle persuasion) that it was worth getting this down in an article.

 

Intent vs Outcome

It’s safe to say that there will have been very little malicious intent in any of the challenges that have been carded over the last few weeks, but in a sport as physical as rugby accidents can happen. Some people will look at incidents like Tusi Pisi’s red card for a challenge in the air on Jamie Shillcock and argue that rugby is going soft as there was clearly no attempt to cause injury. We can’t judge severity of actions by intent though as referees are not mind readers. They must look at the cold hard facts of a challenge and the only way to do so effectively is to look at the outcome. Looking back at the 2011 World Cup with the way the tackle is refereed now, I can’t believe there was ever an argument against Sam Warburton being shown a red card for his tackle on Vincent Clerc!

Where it does become more difficult is the refereeing of an aerial challenge. Here the challenge only becomes an offence if there is not a ‘fair competition’ for the ball, otherwise this is just a rugby incident. Law 10.4(i) describes fair competition as ‘both players in a realistic position to catch the ball’. While this is good to see as it still encourages competition for the high ball, this puts the incident at the interpretation of the officials. I was happy to see Wayne Barnes recently speaking on Rugby Tonight about how the referees meet to review incidents from the weekend to make sure that they are all judging challenges the same. While any incident in a rugby game will generate a variety of opinions, all we can ask is that the individuals in charge of the game are making the right decisions with the evidence they have to hand.

Punishing the outcome of a challenge is also important as the actual physical incident is what causes injury rather than a player’s intent. By being strict on these challenges it is encouraging the players to adapt to the way the game is now being refereed, making challenges safer moving forward. As much as we may feel these rules are softening up the game, they are designed to protect players from injury. Are a couple of ‘soft’ cards and delays in play worth it if it improves the physical wellbeing of the players? I certainly think so.

What else am I meant to do?

It must be remembered that there are at least 2 people involved in a tackle: the tackler and the ball carrier. There is only so much a tackler can do to ensure player safety, if a ball carrier ducks or slips into a tackle unexpectedly, the tackler won’t always have a chance to modify the way he is tackling to keep it safe. Geoff Parling appeared to duck slightly just before contact with Brad Barritt. While I am not saying Barritt’s tackle would have been legal without Parling ducking, it certainly hasn’t helped the situation. There will also be times where another player has an effect on the tackle, as in the case of Sam Davies’ yellow card against Connacht. Davies lined up to tackle the man, but due to another Ospreys player already attempting to tackle him, the ball carrier appeared to drop in height right before the contact, moving Davies’ tackle into the danger zone. I am sure that referees will take mitigating factors into account, but it may also result in players tackling lower to ensure that even if the ball carrier slips at the last moment, the tackle is still safe.

There have also been some fair points on how try-line defence will be affected by the stricter directives with regards to tackles that slip up around the neck. Probably the most contentious card given under the new directives so far would be that of Ulster’s Sean Reidy against Scarlets. Reidy’s tackle around the shoulders of Aled Davies was deemed high and he was given a yellow card while Scarlets were awarded a penalty try. Ben Kay and Ugo Monye recently showcased how the current laws and directives make it difficult to defend the pick-and-go off the back of a ruck on the try-line. Ball carriers driving for the line in this position will stay low, increasing the risk of a tackler making contact with the head. However a tackler cannot go too low or they will be unable to wrap their arms and will be penalised for an illegal chop tackle. While we all want to see high-scoring games, the last thing we want as spectators is to see penalty tries and cards each game for making legitimate attempts to tackle the man when there is no other way to stop them from scoring.

An honest assessment

Since August 2012, World Rugby have allowed some form of temporary replacement while players are being tested for symptoms of concussion. In August 2015, this officially took the form of a 13 minute Head Injury Assessment. While this is a great measure to improve player safety, it is by no means perfect at the moment.

George North was famously allowed to play on after passing a HIA, even though everyone watching the replays (other than the Northampton coaches and medical team) could clearly see that he was knocked unconscious following an aerial collision with Leicester’s Adam Thompstone. Amidst a strong backlash from the rugby world, Northampton were cleared by a concussion panel review set up by the RFU and Premiership Rugby. Even World Rugby surprised fans by declaring themselves ‘disappointed’ in Northampton’s conduct but praising the response of Premiership Rugby and the RFU. In many fan’s eyes, this whole incident undermined the strong stance being taken on player welfare, specifically relating to head injuries. And unfortunately it’s not a one-off case. Sale Sharks, already being sued by former scrum half Cillian Willis for wrongful handling of a head injury that resulted in his early retirement, are now being investigated for a potential breach of concussion protocol after allowing TJ Ioane to continue playing without a HIA after appearing to be concussed when trying to make a tackle.

Perhaps even more scary was rugby hardman Jamie Cudmore’s interview on Rugby Tonight a few weeks back, when he spoke of how he was told his match was over following a head injury when playing for Clermont in the semi-final of the European Cup but was soon back on the pitch as his replacement was struggling. After being stood down for a couple of weeks, he went on to play in the final and began vomiting in the changing room whilst getting a blood injury stitched up but was still allowed to complete the game.

If World Rugby and the national unions want to prove they are serious about player safety, incidents like this cannot be allowed, especially when there are other teams who are following the concussion protocols and being put at a disadvantage by this. In a recent game against Exeter, Bath had already brought on both their replacement props due to injuries. One of these replacements then had to come off in the final 6 minutes due to a head injury, but as there were no more props available to come on, Bath had to see the game out a man down and ended up losing due to a 76th minute try. There is no way to guarantee that Bath would have held on with 15 men on the pitch, but with momentum already beginning to swing in Exeter’s direction, they could not afford to be playing a man down. Perhaps with HIAs becoming more common, the number of replacements allowed on the bench needs to be increased, even if the maximum number of permitted substitutions remains the same. At the very least, it seems harsh to penalize a team by making them play a man down if there is a player who can come on in this situation, even if he can’t play prop, though I understand that a team cannot be allowed to possibly gain an advantage by replacing an ‘injured’ prop with a hooker to allow uncontested scrums.

 

Every cloud has a silver lining

While it’s understandable that some people will feel unhappy at how strict rugby is becoming in the refereeing of any contact, it is clearly with good intentions. The big hit is not being outlawed from the game, it is simply being made safer for everyone involved… though I doubt that is any consolation to Jules Plisson when he wakes up from a nightmare of being tackled by Courtney Lawes!

In time, players will hopefully begin to tackle lower to avoid high tackles, and this could actually lead to an improvement in the quality of the game. Tackling around the legs or lower torso will increase the chances of a ball carrier being able to offload the ball out of the tackle, resulting in a better, more flowing game. If it reduces the number of scrums being caused by the choke tackle, I’m not going to be complaining!