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.
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