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World Rugby must throw the book at repeat offender Farrell if they are serious about tackling head injuries

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Craig Ray is the Daily Maverick sports editor.

A red card for England captain Owen Farrell against Wales after another ugly head shot on an opposing player will be a litmus test for whether World Rugby rhetoric about ‘player safety’ can be taken seriously.

Rugby is a dynamic sport with multiple moving parts, a lengthy law book and complex rules that make it extremely difficult to play and to officiate.

At all levels but particularly at professional level, huge humans, honed in gyms and training fields are asked to smash into each other at high velocity. It’s a contact sport – no, a collision sport – and when there are high-impact collisions people might be hurt. 

That’s not to say there aren’t rules and there shouldn’t be a framework to control aggression and physicality, but even within those boundaries, mistakes will happen. 

Unintentional head contact will occur from time to time. Humans are not perfect and when two bodies, moving towards each other at high velocity and from different angles, collide, there is a great deal that could go wrong. 

Even so, mistaken blows to the head are punished under the current climate. Head contact is the biggest taboo in the sport – and for good reason. 

Former Wales captain and British & Irish Lion Ryan Jones and England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup winning hooker Steve Thompson, along with more than 220 other former professional players who are suffering from early-onset dementia and other irreversible neurological impairments, instigated a lawsuit against World Rugby and other bodies late last year. 

How often have we seen players red carded for unintentional head contact in recent years and subsequently suspended? And it can be infuriating when it’s clearly an unintentional act, as happened to England’s Freddie Steward on Ireland’s Hugo Keenan during the Six Nations earlier this year. 

Which makes it all the more vital that seemingly deliberate acts of foul play, and repeated offenders are dealt with even more severely. 

The offending players’ “intent” is considered at disciplinary hearings, but on the field, hitting a player in the head with a swinging arm, shoulder (no arms tackle), another head, usually ends up with the transgressor in the sin bin. 

Players make mistakes, but when the same player continually makes mistakes, and not just mistakes, but deliberately drives his shoulder into the heads of ball carriers, then the law makers are compelled to act. 

Farcical Farrell

England captain Owen Farrell, a notorious repeat offender of the cheap, high shot, was at it again at Twickenham. 

Late in the second half of the match England ultimately won 19-17 against Wales, Farrell drove his shoulder upward, into Wales’ flank Taine Basham’s face with force. Basham did not return to the field. 

Farrell was initially yellow-carded by Georgian referee Nika Amashukeli, but the Foul Play Review Officer (FPRO) in what is called the “bunker”, reviewed the matter. A few minutes later the message came back from the FPRO to the referee with the instruction to elevate the yellow card to a red.

Presumably the Rugby Football Union (RFU) will now throw their considerable resources behind defending Farrell when he appears in front of a disciplinary panel this week.  

The best lawyers will no doubt be on hand to make a case for Farrell where they will attempt to paint a picture of a player who is committed but not dirty. It’s going to be a hard sell because previous evidence suggests otherwise. 

His record is not pretty either. 

Farrell received a four-game suspension in January 2023 for a similar incident on Gloucester’s Jack Clement when playing club rugby for Saracens. 

The ban was reduced by a week when the RFU spotted a loophole in the regulations if Farrell attended “tackle school”. 

During that hearing, the panel said that Farrell had “shown remorse” and “apologised”, and that there was “no intent” in his actions. Those were all factors in determining the length of the ban, which ended at three weeks from a possible 12 and allowed Farrell to play in England’s Six Nations opener against Scotland. 

Farrell also received a five-match ban for a high tackle in 2020, and a two-match ban in 2016 for a similar offence. He got off without any suspension for his outrageous no-arms hit on Bok centre André Esterhuizen at Twickenham in 2018. 

He stopped the Wallabies scoring a try with a no-arms hit on Izack Rodda in 2018 as well, and also escaped any sanction. It’s no wonder he continues to “tackle” in this way. He has been allowed to get away with so much, for so long, despite the occasional ban, that changing his technique must feel unnecessary. 

It really will be a stretch if a disciplinary panel again accepts pleas of “remorse” and it being unintentional from the England skipper. Farrell’s entire history of thuggish acts at key moments in big games seems to suggest otherwise.

Farrell is a repeat offender, yet every time he’s on the naughty step, he gets a mild rap on the knuckles. He is close to being untouchable despite a large volume of evidence that does not square with his rather lenient punishments, so it’s no surprise he keeps doing what he does. 

The consensus is that he might receive a six-week ban this time, which would rule him out of England’s first two Rugby World Cup 2023 matches against Argentina and Japan. 

It would be a hefty punishment for the England team because Farrell is a key player, but it would at least send a firm message that he is not above the law. 

Enforcing player safety in rugby is an extremely difficult task at the best of times. But World Rugby would go a long way to showing they mean it if repeat offenders of the same crimes were severely punished. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Farrell cannot tackle. Ask Cheslin Kolbe

  • A Concerned Citizen says:

    Farrell is the pantomime villain of rugby. I agree with Craig – World Rugby’s claim of player safety being priority number one is just words without backing it up with action against the worst offender in the game.

  • Margaret Jensen says:

    Farrel is a “key player” for England but how he plays must be regulated.
    Thank you Craig for a enlightening article.

  • Rob Fisher says:

    Only 6 weeks?
    Rassie got 12 months for a video! No head contact at all!

  • Martin Oosthuizen says:

    In the olden days there were ways and means of dealing with a arrogant windgat like Farrell. Where are Joggie Jansen and perhaps Gys Pitzer as well? Farrell would feel some pain.

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    Surely World Rugby can’t buckle under the pressure of the RFU, again? Farrell doesn’t have technique issues, he has red mist issues – every one of the cheap shots was in a high pressure situation, where his intent was to poleaxe the player. He needs a lengthy ban, and if it ends his international career, then so be it. Only himself to blame.

  • bigbad jon says:

    Good article Craig.
    This will be a real test for ‘World Rugby’ if they come down hard on one of their own.. As Oosthuizen says, previously rugby sorted these guys out on the field, where is a Bakkies Botha when you need him?

  • William Dryden says:

    Farrell was shown to be a bully from his schooldays in a previous article and continues throughout his rugby career. He should be banned for life before someone gets real brain damage from his irresponsible attitude and disregard of rugby rules.

  • Steve Davidson says:

    “And it can be infuriating when it’s clearly an unintentional act, as happened to England’s Freddie Steward on Ireland’s Hugo Keenan during the Six Nations earlier this year.”

    Sorry Craig, but I think you’re totally wrong, and maybe have also been brainwashed by the ERFU (I refuse to leave off the E for English – arrogant bliksems that they are). Steward went into the ‘tackle’ without opening his arms, and – unlike the whinging poms tried to make out – had no reason to know there’d been an earlier knock-on so the ref would have blown up (which Peyper didn’t until after the ‘tackle’) so should have been sent whatever happened.

    Unfortunately, the ERFU, their very unsportsmanlike players and supporters once again managed to get away with that, and almost did on Saturday. Thank heaven for a really good ref (has impressed me ever since I first saw him) and the TMO for standing up to be counted. Let’s hope we don’t have a repetition of the Steward incident. Oh and BTW, seems he got a very fair yellow card for tackling the Welsh winger in the air, even though I see lots of poms have the barefaced cheek to suggest the latter jumped in the air not to catch the ball but injure Steward!

  • Nick Grierson says:

    I agree- he’s too often acting as a thug. As an Englishman living in Cape Town I suggest a 1-year ban, with a threatened life time ban from all aspects of rugby if he transgresses again. He’s a disgrace to the game.

  • Paddy Ross says:

    I think that IRFU head injury protocols are to be applauded. I realise that Farrell is the ‘bete noir’ of Springbok fans but no professional rugby player is going to intentionally deliver a deliberate head hit. He will almost invariably get a yellow card and, quite likely, a red card which for a player whose job is to win makes no sense as it makes the chances of one’s team winning significantly more difficult. Farrell is a very physical player and is careless when tackling and should be censured for that but I do not accept that he is a dirty player.

  • Stephen Fish says:

    So Farrell is off the hook. Cleared by “World Rugby” who are obviously protecting “England” at all costs … and not really interested in player safety when it means England would suffer …

  • Ryckard Blake says:

    England should never have picked this serial offender in their team.
    Mark my words, he is going to prove a liability to them when at least once in their pool games, he again simply cannot resist his inner need to sneak in his trademark up-right stance, no-arms, head-crunching “tackle”.

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