Nigel Owens summoned the captain of England. ‘I am checking the TMO,’ the referee told him. ‘I don’t need your players telling me to do that.’ So not all of rugby’s changes are for the best.
It is a sport trying sincerely to be safer, cleaner, less terrifying in an age when we know the consequences of repeated head trauma. In the circumstances, it is hard to see how it could be anything else. Yet in with all that are the nuances around red cards and their impact on the game.
Just about every minute of every day in the life of a professional athlete is dedicated to seeking advantage, and in rugby there are few greater advantages than playing 15 against 14.
This Rugby World Cup has seen officials clamp down on what are perceived to be bad tackles
Tomas Lavanini was shown red during England’s win over Argentina for a bad tackle
England’s contest with Argentina was as good as over the moment Argentina lock Tomas Lavanini was dismissed with 62 minutes remaining.
England were leading 5-3 at the time but their final 29 point advantage underplayed the superiority considering how many penalties and conversions went astray.
There have now been as many sent off at this tournament as at the last four Rugby World Cups combined, so it is impossible to argue that these are not transformative changes. What Lavanini did to Farrell was an old-fashioned power hit, designed not just to stop him dead in his tracks, because far lower tackles can also do that, but to leave a mark.
Not an injury necessarily. Just the knowledge of having been hit, and hit big. He could have got lower, that is the key. This wasn’t one of those collisions that was unavoidable, in which the bigger man could justifiably claim that size differences or absence of time to get properly set made shoulder-to-head contact close to unavoidable.
Lavanini made a choice, and it was a poor one. He left the field fighting tears, but even his team-mates later acknowledged Owens’ call was correct.
So it is not the decision itself that is controversial. Rugby is undergoing re-education, almost re-programming, and some are quicker learners than others. After this World Cup there will be no further doubt about what is acceptable and those that cannot grasp the concepts will be considered too great a liability to be picked.
Gradually, red-card tackles will die out and 2019 could be the peak, as the sport gets to grips with its new laws.
The change in laws has seen rugby’s code of conduct tested with players surrounding referees
Welsh referee Nigel Owens was firm with the England players who were calling for reviews
Yet other changes are not so palatable, certainly in a sport that often prides itself on being the better of football. For surrounding a referee, telling him to begin the process of sending an opponent off, is straight out of the round ball game. Imaginary waved cards are next.
Owens made his irritation plain immediately, and he is an excellent referee who holds his own wonderfully — even telling the two packs to ‘stop being cocky and start scrumming properly’ early on. Yet others? In every sport there are good and bad officials. Those that are weaker, those that can be influenced, may find the pressure more of a challenge.
Because getting the opposition down to 14 is a tactic now. Not one that Farrell used, obviously. He didn’t invite, invent or exaggerate the hit. Yet in the aftermath, England’s players ensured the referee took a second look: and that is new. And foreign, for rugby.
Before England’s match with Australia last year, Kurtley Beale and Adam Ashley-Cooper were dropped for breaking the team’s rules regarding visitors following defeat to Wales. They brought three women, including Ashley-Cooper’s sister-in-law, back to their hotel and were reported by team-mates to the Wallabies leadership group,
The experienced referee is one of sport’s best officials and is firm with players on respect
Both men were then dropped for the Test with England. Fast forward to Twickenham then, where a taunt from England prop Kyle Sinckler was picked up on referee Jaco Peyper’s microphone following a second-half melee. ‘You’re all f****** snitches anyway,’ Sinckler told his opponents, appalled that what happened on tour didn’t stay there.
Yet snitching might become the norm now red is all the rage. Eddie Jones was in a difficult mood after Saturday’s win, avoiding straight answers to quite the simplest questions, yet even he ended up conceding that rugby’s ethics may alter.
‘It’s a function of the game,’ he said when pressed on the new era of interaction between players and referee. ‘I think the referees have a tough enough job at the moment and they have to be left to do it,’ he added, but he was talking about his own reluctance to get involved, not any helpful advice Owens may have been given.
Jones may have been playing games as he sometimes does, but his view that going a man down actually gave Argentina a temporary psychological advantage also bears consideration.
Only a lunatic would think playing 14 versus 15 for an hour is a positive — although England did beat Argentina with those numbers after Elliot Daly was sent off in 2016 — but Jones was insistent that at the moment they were reduced, Argentina got a boost.
England coach Eddie Jones has said that he doesn’t envisage lack of respect being a problem
‘It’s human nature,’ he said. ‘They get a psychological lift and our players start thinking it’s going to happen. And we did that for a period of time. I was really pleased with the way we got back to doing the simple things in the second half.’
Man of the match Sam Underhill agreed. ‘It’s never as much of an advantage as people might think because you can be under the illusion that space is there and start playing differently,’ he said. ‘They dealt with it pretty well really. There was a lot of set piece and they shortened up their attack, so it was challenging to deal with.’
They are not completely wrong. Argentina were raging for a brief period after Lavinini went, but ultimately it wasn’t much of a weapon against England’s numerical supremacy. Yet there is a psychology to video technology rulings as football is finding; an opposition goal chalked off by VAR lifts the crowd almost as much as a goal from their own team.
Equally, the toll of being a centimetre offside can be mentally crushing in a way that is entirely disproportionate to the offence. In time, the players will just get used to it. Rugby’s, too.
We could see rugby players becoming more like footballers in how they treat referees
Yet red cards won’t just change the sport on the field. Supporters are affable types and there was certainly no hint of violence away from the play on Saturday. Yet in the aftermath of Lavinini’s dismissal there was a marked feeling of injustice from the followers of a team that were now plainly heading out at the pool stage for the first time since 2003.
A misjudged challenge in the air by Manu Tuilagi on Emiliano Boffelli brought an outraged reaction and clear frustration at what was perceived as inconsistency. Rugby fans are generally an accepting sort. They’ll have a moan like any partisans, but there really isn’t much in the way of conspiracy theories and screams of bias.
Even in the most competitive rivalries — Wales and England, for instance — folk tend to accept when they are beaten, and the reasons for it over a beer. Yet one wonders whether the swings in advantage caused by the new rules will change that.
Since professionalism, a lot of behaviour that was considered unique to football has crept in, and it would be a terrible pity if that general sense of comradeship and empathy went with it, too.
For all of the difficulties the sport faces, rugby’s core values have enormous worth. It would be a huge loss to sport if they simply became collateral damage in the pursuit of a safer game.