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Foul play: Players’ high crimes go unpunished in rugb...



Foul play: Players’ high crimes go unpunished in rugby’s international showpiece

Eben Etzebeth of South Africa and British & Irish Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones confront each other during the second Test match at Cape Town Stadium on 31 July 2021. (Photo: EJ Langner / Gallo Images / Getty Images)

Referees and officials have been too lenient on foul play offenders in Bok and British & Irish Lions series.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

In spite of several examples of unbridled aggression – some of which have been highlighted by the host broadcaster during the games – citing commissioners have failed to identify the culprits or to hand down any suspensions during the landmark series between the Springboks and the British & Irish Lions.

Lions prop Kyle Sinckler was cited for biting after the second Test – and later cleared of the offence for lack of evidence – but several more players, on both teams, could have been in the dock and could have been forced to sit out of the third, decisive Test.

And yet, there have been no consequences for the crimes witnessed across the first two Tests. Both teams have escaped serious sanction – and ultimately World Rugby has sent the wrong message to the wider rugby community. 

Curry oversteps the mark

In the first Test, Lions flank Tom Curry was involved in a number of dangerous incidents.

In the 16th minute, Curry drove his shoulder into the ribs of Faf de Klerk, long after the scrumhalf had kicked the ball. Referee Nic Berry awarded a penalty to the Boks, but the incident may well have been worth a review, and ultimately a yellow card, given that Curry made no attempt to use his arms in the tackle and the challenge was late and dangerous.

In the 34th minute, the Lions were awarded a scrum deep in South African territory. Referee Nic Berry was in a terrific position to witness the front-row battle between Ox Nché and Tadhg Furlong.

There was a concerning moment in that scrum, however, when Curry swung round to bind on the Bok prop.

The flank then proceeded to “scrum” into Nché, and went as far as to the legs of the loosehead. Nché protested, but Berry decided to award a penalty to the Lions.

According to the law, the referee could have awarded a penalty to the Boks on two counts. Nobody in the scrum other than those in the front row is allowed to hold or push an opponent, and intentionally lifting an opponent off their feet or forcing them upwards out of the scrum is considered dangerous play and should result in a penalty.

Nché left the field at half-time and didn’t return. South Africa director of rugby Rassie Erasmus later confirmed that Nché had suffered a neck injury in that particular scrum. The Bok loosehead prop was sidelined for the rest of the series. 

Price’s challenge goes unpunished

In recent years, officials have clamped down on dangerous challenges in the air. It’s not uncommon to see reckless attempts to compete for the ball resulting in a yellow card. If the opponent lands on his head or upper body, referees often brandish a red.

In the 61st minute of the first Test, however, Berry kept both his cards in his pocket. Lions scrumhalf Ali Price grabbed Cheslin Kolbe’s leg while he was jumping for a high ball and hurled him to the ground.

Kolbe caught the ball, and planted one foot infield before crashing onto his back.  Berry and his assistants missed the offence by Price, and told the players to play on.

The World Rugby website states that “concussion can be caused by a direct blow to the head, but it can also occur when blows to other parts of the body result in rapid movement of the head, such as whiplash”. At the very least, Kolbe should have been given a moment to recover from his fall, and he should have been assessed by medical staff before play was allowed to continue.

As it was, Kolbe had four seconds to catch his breath before Lions prop Mako Vunipola hauled him up.

As Erasmus pointed out later, Vunipola and the officials should have known better than to treat the situation so lightly. 

Clockwise from top: 1. Lions wing Duhan van der Merwe tackles Boks flank Pieter-Steph du Toit and drops him dangerously. 2. Van der Merwe trips Bok wing Cheslin Kolbe again. 3. Faf de Klerk hits opposite number Conor Murray high. 4. Tom Curry scrums up and into Bok prop Ox Nché, causing a neck injury that ended his series. 5. Curry hits De Klerk late and without arms. 6. Murray lands heavily after Kolbe takes him out in the air. 7. Lions lock Maro Itoje puts his knee on to Damian de Allende’s throat. 8. Curry enters a ruck from the side. (Photos: Screengrabs)

Watson escapes yellow card

In the 64th minute, Berry called on television match official Marius Jonker after Hamish Watson picked up Willie le Roux and drove him into the ground. Le Roux put his hand out at the last moment. If he hadn’t done so, he would have landed on his head.

The law says that a player must not lift an opponent off the ground and drop or drive that player so that their head makes contact with the ground. The officials decided to penalise Watson, and most – including former Test referee Nigel Owens – felt that the player was fortunate not to receive a yellow card.

It’s somewhat concerning to think that a player has to land on his head before the offence is deemed worthy of a red. If Le Roux hadn’t had the presence of mind to stick his hand out there might have been a serious injury and the offending team would have been one man down for the rest of the game.

The same is true of the incident involving Conor Murray, who did extremely well to avoid serious injury after clashing with Kolbe in the second Test. 

Van der Merwe lashes out

Duhan van der Merwe and several others were the beneficiaries of some lenient officiating in the second Test.

Van der Merwe kicked out at Kolbe in the 23rd minute, and was shown a yellow card. Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones asked if Van der Merwe was attempting to kick the ball, even though replays showed that Kolbe had collected possession well before Van der Merwe put a boot into the Bok winger’s leg.

While Kolbe wasn’t as overtly aggressive as his opposite number, he did overstep the mark on a couple of occasions. He got his timing wrong in the 16th minute when he rushed out of the defensive line and attempted to tackle Murray. The result was a head clash, which officials failed to acknowledge.

The action wasn’t intentional, but it was reckless, and should according to the law have resulted in a penalty at least. If a referee had taken a closer look and decided that head contact had been made, Kolbe might have been shown a yellow card. 

Kolbe lucky not to see red

After the game, Owens suggested that Kolbe was lucky he received a yellow rather than a red card for his subsequent challenge on Murray. In the 25th minute, the Lions scrumhalf soared to collect a high ball. Kolbe, rushing forward from the opposite direction, got his timing wrong and took out the legs of the airborne player. The officials decided to send Kolbe to the sin bin.

He wasn’t the only Bok to mistime his tackle attempts. In the 35th minute, De Klerk rushed towards Murray. The initial contact was high, and while the replay suggested that he may have wrapped his arms at the last second, there may well have been head contact. A few of the non-playing Lions reserves in the stands shouted, “Yellow card for the tackle!” but the referee didn’t even penalise the offence. 

Itoje kneels on De Allende

The Lions were fortunate to finish the match with a full complement of players.

In the 65th minute, Damian de Allende attempted to roll away from a ruck and found himself pinned by Maro Itoje’s leg. The ball was eventually passed to Owen Farrell, who cleared upfield. As the other players moved towards the ball, Itoje continued to scrap with De Allende.

The footage showed the Lions lock kneeling on the Bok centre, and making contact with De Allende’s throat. This prompted De Allende to flail and wriggle until he was free. The altercation ended with De Allende tackling Itoje to the turf and the lock appealing to the officials.

While this was happening, referee Ben O’Keeffe could be heard telling Bok captain Siya Kolisi: “We have to keep going.” Perhaps the officials were under pressure to complete the match after a lengthy first half.

That said, why would they ignore an off-the-ball incident of such severity? How could such a clear-cut offence go unpunished?

Lions fans will say that Kolbe should have been sent off for his challenge on Murray and that he should have been banned ahead of the decider. Bok fans will say that Itoje deserved to be ejected after his intentional offence, and that he too should have been forced to watch the third Test from the stands.

That both have been let off the hook, however, is an indictment on the officiating and the disciplinary process.

Some might argue that a highly anticipated decider will be better for the inclusion of two superstars, but a failure to punish foul play offenders, particularly in big series such as these, is only going to hurt the game in the long term. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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  • Van der Merwe’s “tackle” on Piet-Steph was shocking and dangerous. He should have been banned for at least 3 months if not longer. Instead he was allowed to play in the 3rd Test which was completely wrong.

  • There’s an obvious reason why top tier rugby players continue with foul behaviour – they get away with it in the lower tiers of rugby. Starting at schools, clubs and so on. That’s where the corrections need to start globally. World Rugby could do something constructive in this regard.

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