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During the Rugby World Cup final between New Zealand and South Africa, Sam Cane made history by becoming the first player to be ejected from the game. This occurred after his initial yellow card was upgraded to a red card upon review from the TMO bunker.
During the first half of the Stade de France match, the All Blacks captain’s shoulder made contact with Jesse Kriel’s head. Referee Wayne Barnes initially gave the captain a yellow card, but after using the bunker system, it was changed to a red card.
The referee reviewing the play determined that it was a shoulder-to-head collision with a considerable amount of force and not enough justification to only issue a yellow card. Once the review was finished, Barnes asked the substitute captain Ardie Savea to inform the All Blacks of the unfavorable outcome. Savea responded in disbelief, asking if it was a red card. Cane was visibly distressed upon hearing his punishment and was seen closing his eyes and leaning back in his chair on the sidelines.
In response to the decision made during half-time, former Ireland rugby player Brian O’Driscoll strongly believed that Sam Cane deserved the red card. He stated to ITV Sport, “A proper tackle is when the player’s hips are bent, and in this case, Sam Cane cannot argue. There was no sudden movement, he could see the target clearly, and the impact to the head was significant. It was an obvious red card.”
All Blacks icon Sean Fitzpatrick reluctantly acknowledged, “In live action, it would have been a red card. We must move forward.”
What are the regulations regarding head contact and high tackles that referees adhere to, and how do they determine the appropriate punishment?
Here is all the information you need to know:
What are the regulations of World Rugby regarding contact with the head?
Law 9 of the Rugby Union Laws addresses foul play, specifically head-to-head contact during a tackle.
Law 9.11 dictates “Players must not do anything that is reckless or dangerous to others, including leading with the elbow or forearm, or jumping into, or over, a tackler” and Law 9.13 goes on to say “A player must not tackle an opponent early, late or dangerously. Dangerous tackling includes, but is not limited to, tackling or attempting to tackle an opponent above the line of the shoulders even if the tackle starts below the line of the shoulders.”
If a player violates these rules and the action is considered reckless or dangerous, the referee has the authority to issue a yellow or red card.
World Rugby also clarify the intent of the laws, stating in their guidelines that: “ Player welfare drives World Rugby’s decision making for zero tolerance of foul play, especially where head contact occurs. The focus must be on the actions of those involved, not the injury – the need for an HIA [a Head Injury Assessment] does not necessarily mean that there has been illegal head contact.”
What consequences are imposed for direct contact between heads?
Ok, this is where things get technical and debates start to occur. In March 2023, World Rugby issued their latest ‘head contact process law application guidelines’ to guide referees on whether foul play has occurred and how it should be punished.
The official must follow four steps (explained further below) in order to assess the severity of the foul and decide on a punishment. These four steps include:
Has there been any contact with the head?
Did any cheating or wrongdoing occur?
What level of risk was present?
Is there a way to reduce the impact or severity?
Is there any head contact in Step 1? This includes the head, face, neck, and throat. If there is any head contact, we proceed to Step 2.
In the second step, the question is whether there was any unfair play involved. The referees are instructed to determine if the contact to the head was done on purpose, with disregard for safety, or could have been avoided – for example, if the defender was always standing upright. If it is determined that there was unfair play, the player who made the contact will be penalized and the process moves on to the third step. However, if the contact to the head is not considered to be unfair play, the game continues.
What was the level of risk in Step 3? This is used to determine the initial consequence, ranging from high to low.
If there is a risk of serious harm, it will be determined by any of the following factors: direct contact instead of indirect, a strong impact, the tackler not having control, the incident happening at high speed, leading with the head/shoulder/elbow/forearm, or an irresponsible tackle. If the referee decides that there is a high level of danger, a red card will be given.
In the meantime, minimal risk is considered to be when there is no direct contact, minimal force, low speed, or no significant use of the head, shoulders, arms, or swinging arm. This could result in a yellow card or possibly just a penalty for the opposing team.
In Step 4, the last stage of the process, we determine if there are any ways to lessen the severity of the punishment. This could involve reducing a red card to a yellow card or a yellow card to a penalty. Mitigating factors may include a sudden decrease in height or a change in direction from the player with the ball, a late change in the situation due to another player’s involvement, the tackler making a clear effort to lower their height, or not having enough time to adjust.
Mitigation will not be applicable in cases of intentional or consistently illegal acts of foul play.
How about the review by the Foul Play Review Officer/Bunker?
A new system, known as the Bunker review system, was implemented for the World Cup. It gives the referee the ability to give a player a yellow card, causing them to temporarily leave the game, while play continues. A Foul Play Review Official (FPRO) will then review the incident and decide if the yellow card should be changed to a red one. This allows the game to keep going instead of having a lengthy pause to discuss the decision. An example of this occurred with Curry during the match against Argentina.
The referee signals a Bunker review by crossing their arms.
After being sent to the sin-bin, the FPRO has a maximum of eight minutes to assess the situation and determine if it justifies a red card. If not, the player will be allowed to rejoin the game after serving their 10-minute penalty in the sin-bin.