Referee followed protocols with decision to ‘play on’ after Williams was left unconscious but was he wrong?

Referee followed protocols with decision to ‘play on’ after Williams was left unconscious but was he wrong?
Irish referee Andrew Brace during The Rugby Championship match between South Africa and Argentina at Ellis Park. (Photo: Dirk Kotze/Gallo Images)

Irish referee Andrew Brace has come under fire for not penalising Argentina fullback Juan Cruz Mallia after he flew into Bok Grant Williams during the South Africa vs Argentina match on 29 July. But his decision appears to be controversial.

At the recent World Rugby U20 Championships hosted in the Western Cape, the plight of referees was made abundantly clear.

Due to the use of school grounds in the early stages, spectators and media were close to the action. This particular game saw Ireland take on Australia and both teams had a merry band of enthusiastic supporters in tow – mostly family – to the players.

The standard of rugby was high, as you’d expect with several players on both sides already capped at senior United Rugby Championship or Super Rugby level.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Junior Boks splutter, NZ stutter, Ireland squander and France strut on World Rugby Champs opening day

At almost every action of the game, fans from one side or another screamed at the referee: “Holding on”, “offsides”, “high tackle,” “not rolling away, “collapsing”, “not releasing”, “not through the gate”, “forward pass”, “skew throw” and so on. The actual offence – or not – was very much in the eye of the beholder.

It struck me that if two sets of fans could see the same game so differently – obviously clouded by bias – but nonetheless able to spot dozens of infringements, it must be an impossible task for referees. 

Sitting, literally, between the two sets of supporters, my attention was drawn to their calls. In some instances, they had a case, at least in my opinion. Strict application of the law would’ve meant we hardly had a game at all.

Springbok scrumhalf Grant Williams is stretchered off after a sickening collision with Pumas fullback Juan Cruz Mallia, seconds into the game. (Photo: Dirk Kotze/Gallo Images)

Knocked out cold

So, to last weekend, where the Springboks played against the Pumas at Ellis Park. After a bloated build-up that saw the match kick-off six minutes behind schedule, Bok scrumhalf Grant Williams was knocked out cold within seconds of the start. 

He was felled by Pumas fullback Juan Cruz Mallia, who chased the kick-off, which Williams fielded a few metres from his tryline. Mallia, like all committed players at any level, but particularly at Test level, chased as if his life depended on it.

As Williams shaped to kick, Mallia launched himself to attempt a charge down. Mallia’s timing was off and the ball grazed his thigh as he clattered into the unlucky Williams. Mallia’s hip caught Williams in the head. The scrumhalf was out cold before he hit the deck. 

See the incident and discussion here:

It was a horrible blow, compounded by the fact that play went on for a few more seconds with a prostrate Williams unconscious, almost at the feet of Irish referee Andrew Brace. That the official never blew his whistle to stop play immediately is possibly a bigger crime than the actual collision. 

When play stopped, Brace and his assistant referees, as well as the television match official (TMO), had a big call to make. Bok skipper Duane Vermeulen made it clear he thought it was foul play. 

Bigger picture

It’s worth pausing here to consider the bigger picture. Rugby is desperately trying to mitigate head injuries in the sport. It’s become a crucial battle ground on and off the field.

Contact to the head has become the biggest taboo in the sport. We’ve seen red cards liberally dished out for the slightest contact with the head. Ball carriers duck split seconds before contact, leading to high tackles and usually yellow cards for the hapless defender. 

In January this year, 55 former amateur players initiated legal proceedings against England’s Rugby Football Union, the Welsh Rugby Union and World Rugby, which they accuse of negligence in their failure to protect them from brain injuries during their careers. 

A separate case involving 275 former professionals suffering from various neurological conditions – which they attribute to concussion-related incidents – is ongoing.

Over the past six years, steps have been taken to discourage and prevent head-on-head contact, and ultimately concussions. Stricter sanctions on high or reckless tackles have resulted in an increase in penalties and cards.

New tackle height restrictions have, and are, being trialled. In March 2023, World Rugby recommended that its member unions participate in an opt-in global trial of lowering the tackle height in the community game to below the sternum (also known as a “belly tackle”). 

World Rugby confirmed that trials conducted since 2019 in the community game in France, South Africa, Georgia and Fiji, had delivered positive advances in player safety.

It had done this by reducing the number of head impacts and concussions, and the overall game experience by supporting increased ball-in-play flow.

These are the protocols match officials must go through to establish sanctions for head injuries during a game.

Tight framework

Last Saturday at Ellis Park, Brace was operating within a tight framework. It’s important to note that just because head contact occurred, and in this case, with significant force, it doesn’t automatically mean a red or yellow card. Or even a penalty (see the above accompanying protocol illustration).

 World Rugby has taken a stance of “zero tolerance of foul play where head contact occurs”. The wording of that phrase is crucial… 

Brace knew head contact occurred. But he had to decide whether it was “foul play”. This is an important step in the process, but as with most of rugby’s laws, it’s open to interpretation.

Brace decided there was no foul play, even though there was head contact. That automatically means that it’s “play on” and no further sanction. As referee and the man in charge, he deemed Mallia’s attempted charge down to be a “rugby incident”. 

It’s hard to ignore the outcome of the incident – in this case a badly injured Williams – but that is what referees are expected to do. I must admit, my initial reaction was that the referee was correct and that it was unlucky for both players, obviously more so for Williams. 

But a South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina Rugby (Sanzaar) citing commissioner deemed the incident met the red card threshold. 

“Cruz Mallia is alleged to have contravened Law 9.11: Players must not do anything that is reckless or dangerous to others, during the match between South Africa and Argentina at Emirates Airlines Park in Johannesburg, on 29 July 2023,” the citing commissioner’s sanction read.

“Upon further review of the match footage, the citing commissioner deemed in his opinion the incident had met the red card threshold for foul play.” 

Sniper on the grassy knoll

 On the field, Brace deemed it not reckless. This is a clear indication that Sanzaar believes the referee made a mistake. 

It’s true Brace could have looked at the incident in more depth. He appeared to take one look at it on the big screen and made the comment “that was completely unavoidable, he (Mallia) was committed”.

We could argue about that because the Pumas player did turn in the air. We could argue that his action was reckless because he launched himself at full speed, into a position where he couldn’t control himself irrespective that he touched the ball.

On second and third viewings it appears more and more reckless. But this is also part of the problem.  

Read more in Daily Maverick: Rugby’s battle for better player safety is trumping common sense

How many times have fans complained that by watching an incident in repeated slow motion, officials eventually convince themselves they saw the rugby equivalent of a sniper on the grassy knoll where none exists? 

Brace made a call in real time for an incident that had a bad outcome. And he had another brief look at it and came to the same conclusion. Operating with the framework he was given, it was a judgement call.

The ref might have been incorrect, although he might also be justified in the subsequent disciplinary process.

But one aspect isn’t in doubt, rugby’s complex laws and protocols still have too many grey areas, and are actually making life harder for officials instead of easier. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Alan Ramsay says:

    Most of Craig Ray’s commentary is about whether the ref was correct or not – surely he is the one to be cited, not the player?

  • Colleen Dardagan says:

    What you don’t mention, which to me was the worst offence, is how play went on with a player clearly badly injured lying prone on the field. Willie le Roux had to intervene to get play stopped. That to me was unacceptable and really negligent by the referee.

    • dylan smith says:

      Thank you for the article. You are absolutely correct in pointing out how poorly world rugby manages law interpretation, 4 refs could have made as many calls on this incident. However if you have watched any rugby this season you would be hard pressed to find a reason not to award a red in this instance. So, why the flip flop, brain fart, special request for leniency ? Don’t know. But it is high time refs are made to account and take responsibility for their kak calls.

    • Craig says:

      I agree Colleen. As the copy states in the 10th paragraph:

      “It was a horrible blow, compounded by the fact that play went on for a few more seconds with a prostrate Williams unconscious, almost at the feet of Irish referee Andrew Brace. That the official never blew his whistle to stop play immediately is possibly a bigger crime than the actual collision.”

      Appreciate the interaction…

  • Jon Quirk says:

    The kick off ‘face-off’ is fraught with possibilities. One side lines up to receive, and one of the prime goals herein, is to have a ‘staggered defence’, wherein, whoever collects, has protectors and blockers.

    Herein is the problem- the team on the attack were deployed to attack.

    But we’re was the Bok defence? Where were the blockers?

    Rugby has ever been a game where, if your teammates do not support you, terribke injuries are possible. It is this essentiality of teams acting ‘all for one snd one for all’ that makes it a great game.

    Where was the South Africa layered defence, and who but the coaching team are responsible for such lacking?

    • Steve Davidson says:

      Why on earth should his team mates protect him from a thug who has been red carded in each of the last two seasons and IMHO attacked him with intent to harm him? Mallia should be banned for life and Brace relegated to Irish third league games. Plus the useless TMO. And if anyone tries to say it was an accident or the ref couldn’t see what 50000 of the rest of us could, have a look at videos of C J Stander’s exact same attack that ended Pat Lambie’s career at Newlands that got him an immediate red card.

      • Johann Olivier says:

        I disagree entirely, Mr. Davidson. I believe, as far as the on-field sanction, that Mr. Brace was correct. See how that is? Rugby is a full contact sport & charging a ball down is encouraged & trained for. Pray tell what a man flying through the air, a metre above the ground, should do to avoid contact? I’m often left speechlessly frustrated by red- & yellow cards. In this case, I feel mollified. I do speak as an ex-ref.

  • Bonzo Gibbon says:

    This is the worst head collision I’ve seen in rugby, after the Lambie/Stander one years ago. It’s mind-boggling to think that play wasn’t even stopped, let alone the TMO consulted. To think that De Klerk received a yellow card for brushing Nick White’s moustache! I agree with everything the SS panelists said. It was reckless and dangerous in the extreme, and the fact that he lowered his arms and turned his hip in mid air says it all.

  • Henry Henry says:

    How and why did it happen that international rugby is so flooded by a flotsam of really bad and biased referees?

  • Loren Anthony says:

    Shocking to watch by any standards. This looks like a deliberate attempt to neutralise Williams, and references the classic violence embedded in the Argentinian play book – they have a long-standing rep for bad behaviour. This shouldn’t even be up for debate. Would the outcome have been different if Williams had – God forbid – been fatally injured?

  • Soil Merchant says:

    What beggars belief was that the Ref still awarded a free kick to the Jaguars after this incident! Further compounding the red-card question within the spectators… there were also many other instances where Brace failed as a referee – when he sent of the Bok number 12 to the sin-bin for ball interference, he was committed to trying to catch the ball, but had too much momentum … same as Juan Cruz Mallia – why then a yellow card for play that put no-ones mobility or brain at risk.

  • Roger Sheppard says:

    Mallia lined his jump onto Williams. Even had Mallia caught the damned thing his line was still to hit Williams. Dangerous play did not deter Mallia in his line up on Williams. If it had his jump would have been, even if marginally so, to Williams’ left or right, just as we see regularly at the scrummy clearances from the back of second phase rucks. Those chargers-down do not aim at the scrummies.
    Mallia’s charge was wilfully lined on Williams, and was thus dangerous play.
    The Laws of Rugby Union state that dangerous play is more a transgression in the game than ANYthing!
    Kak decision Brace! Worse decision from the authority in the stand! Get a life both. Lambie was not given one, twice in his career! And Stander, under an aggressive NZ coach, suspiciously nogal, aimed at Lambie!
    Rugby Vs Saffers has never forgotten Mannetjies Roux on England’s Sharp. Foreign refs likewise it appears.

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