Clerc's head drops below his hips as he is tackled by Sam Warburton
I think it’s fair to say that this post isn’t going to win me many friends, especially not on t’other side of Offa’s Dyke. But, in short and at odds with our Welsh Welsh Correspondent (think about it), Wales need to shut up, man up and realise how big an opportunity they let slip by. What lost them this game was poor kicking, an inability to fashion a drop-goal chance at the death and, I suspect, an insufficient ‘big game mentality’.
First, then, the source of the controversy – that tackle. On 18 minutes, Sam Warburton lined up Vincent Clerc and absolutely smashed him. He hit him hard in the chest and, as Clerc went backwards, he wrapped his arms around him. Unfortunately, because Clerc was travelling away from him, his arms actually fastened around the player’s legs, meaning that his subsequent drive lifted the winger’s hips above his shoulders. Realising this, he released the player and dropped him on his head, rather than driving him into the ground in what would’ve been a classic, and extremely dangerous, ‘spear tackle’.
The French players got pretty angry and shoved whoever was nearest, shouting ‘zut alors’ and other expressions of Gallic outrage; Clerc lay prone while medics tried to establish whether his neck was still doing the time-honoured job of holding his head in place; and Alain Rolland, with a minimum of fuss, gave Sam Warburton a straight red card.
Cue pandemonium. Cue speechless commentators, past and present players decrying the decision on Twitter and the whole of Wales getting the collective hump. Perhaps worse, a man called Allain Rolland had an entire Twitter trend of vitriol directed at him, which seems unfair given that he a) is the Vice-President of Research & Development at a pharmaceutical company called Valentis Inc. and b) was almost certainly asleep, as he lives and works in California.
The problem for those who didn’t like the decision is that the real Alain Rolland was absolutely, unequivocally, unambiguously correct. Here’s why:
1) Law 10.4 (j) states ”Lifting a player from the ground and dropping or driving that player into the ground whilst that player’s feet are still off the ground such that the player’s head and/or upper body come into contact with the ground is dangerous play.” This tackle was therefore dangerous play – Clerc hit the ground head first while Warburton still had his legs at chest height. The fact that he was dropped, rather than driven, is irrelevant – that only matters when the disciplinary panel hand out their subsequent ban.
2) On 8th June 2009, the following memorandum was sent out by Paddy O’Brien, IRB Referee Manager: “In 2007, the IRB Council approved a ruling, which essentially made it clear that tackles involving a player being lifted off the ground and tipped horizontally and were then either forced or dropped to the ground are illegal and constitute dangerous play. At a subsequent IRB high performance seminar referees were advised that for these types of tackles they were to start at red card as a sanction and work backwards. Unfortunately these types of tackles are still being made and the purpose of this memorandum is to emphasise that they must be dealt with severely by referees.” A red card is, therefore, the correct punishment for such a tackle. Nothing in the law or the memorandum gives us grounds to consider Warburton’s tackle outside its remit, nor to consider it worthy of less than a red card. As mentioned, dropping and driving are not distinguished by the law, and the timing of the tackle and the importance of the game do not affect the punishment.
3) Just in case there was any doubt, Paddy O’Brien continued: “Referees…should not make their decisions based on what they consider was the intention of the offending player. Their decision should be based on an objective assessment (as per Law 10.4) of the circumstances of the tackle.” So the fact that Sam Warburton is a nice guy, and quite young, and has a good disciplinary record, is also irrelevant. As it should be, frankly. Warburton’s genial character would hardly have helped Clerc if he’d ended up with a broken collarbone, after all. Also, crucially, the genuine attempt to back out of the tackle by dropping Clerc rather than driving him down is immaterial – Clerc still landed dangerously, and the responsibility for putting him down is Warburton’s.
So, in sum, Alain Rolland did exactly what he’s supposed to do. He acted absolutely in accordance with the law and with subsequent clarifications. Not only that, he should be praised for being just about the only referee who is doing this consistently (he dismissed Toulouse centre Florian Fritz for a similar tackle in this year’s Heineken Cup). In fact, given that the law is so unambiguous, other referees have something to answer for here. If everyone had been refereeing with the same clarity, consistency and adherence to the law as Rolland, no one would have been surprised at this decision. Indeed, this is the only area where Wales can feel genuinely hard done-by – that similar and worse tackles have attracted lesser punishments in rugby at every level recently, including at this World Cup. The fault for that is not Rolland’s, however. That problem lies with the rest of the referees.
There is, finally, a further consequence of this inconsistency, which is that the IRB have not been encouraged to reconsider their stance on the laws governing tackles. What has happened, in effect, is that every referee except Rolland has gone away and decided, consciously or otherwise, to distinguish between dropping and driving, to take into account the game state and the player in question. The problem is that the law doesn’t give them any scope for doing this, and so such unlitateral action positively advances the likelihood of the situation that has now occurred – one referee stuck to the law, where others have not, and everyone thinks it’s a travesty. The law should be a strict set of criteria for every decision in the game, taking the need for individual preference out of the equation. That way, theoretically at least, you get consistency across the board and everyone knows what to expect.
If everyone had done this, the IRB would quickly have been forced to review its stance as a series of very soft looking red cards were handed out. If every tackle similar to Warburton’s had suffered the same fate, we would probably by now have a law which takes into account the clear distinction between picking a player up and smashing him into the floor, and losing control of a player’s weight and dropping him. This is a distinction which should be made, and which lies at the heart of much of the public dissatisfaction with this decision. But while referees continue to apply this distinction in practice without the support of the law, the possibility of another unfortunate-looking red card remains as present as ever. Thank goodness it has been brought to our attention – perhaps now something can be done.
The second part of this post has a simple message – even if you remain convinced that Warburton’s sending off was the biggest injustice since the O J Simpson trial, it wasn’t the reason Wales lost. Wales lost because, despite bossing territory and possession for the entire second half, they failed to turn pressure into points. Including drop-goals, they missed six out of seven kicks at goal, and no one wins World Cups with a success rate like that.
It was, certainly, a titanic effort to compete so well with only fourteen men on the field; and, yes, if Warburton had been there then they would have found it easier to play at that level (if you ignore the fact that their performance was almost certainly spurred on by a sharp sense of injustice). But Warburton not being there wasn’t the reason that two drop-goal attempts went wide, or that Halfpenny dropped a foot short with his kick, or that Stephen Jones missed a fairly straightforward conversion. The point is that, once they had achieved the incredible feat of dominating the game with only fourteen men, they straightforwardly messed up. The last play covered 26 consecutive phases of Welsh possession on and around the French 22. Not to fashion a drop-goal attempt in that time is criminal. And, even if Warburton had been involved, there is no good reason to suppose that they would have managed one then.
That indecision and failure to step up to mark suggests mental frailty to me – and a series of Welsh players saying how proud they are of what they have achieved anyway only reinforces this impression. Don’t come off after losing a semi-final and talk about how proud you are – come off and feel gutted! World Cup semi-finals don’t come around very often, especially ones against eminently beatable opposition, and you just blew one. If that sounds unsympathetic, it’s because I am. This is elite sport, and no one gets any prizes for being a plucky loser.
So, in conclusion, I understand why the Welsh feel aggrieved but the only conclusion that can be reached by an objective consideration of the facts is that Rolland made the right decision. Furthermore, given the incredible potential of this Welsh squad, it would be a crying shame if they allowed resentment at the red card get in the way of a drive to improve this team. I hope Warren Gatland has sat his players down and worked out exactly what they need to do better to win tight games, against teams like South Africa and France. Because if he gets that right, they will absolutely destroy the 2012 6 Nations – even if they have to play with only fourteen men.