I watched in mounting horror last night as the most unexpectedly talented, bravest, and most exciting team in the rugby world cup were eliminated at the semi-final stage by one of the least impressive, after the Welsh captain was sent off for an illegal (read, potentially dangerous) tackle.

(If you feel “mounting horror” is too strong to describe my reaction to a sporting event, then you clearly don’t appreciate what the game of rugby means to the tiny nation of Wales and its children, even those marooned in far-flung Antipodes.)

That this wrecked the game as a contest, that Wales nevertheless fought back bravely to eventually only lose by a single point, (France eventually winning 9-8), that the controversy lit up the internet and media everywhere, well, these are the things of sporting history.

That the game highlights an outrageous miscalculation by the sport’s governing body, this is the topic that must be tackled in the cold light of dawn.

A game for hooligans, played by gentleman, administered by donkeys

The noble and ancient game of rugby (it has been played in some form or another for at least thousand years, although its codification is more recent) is notable for many things, but unquestionably it is most famous for having a rule book which is more tinkered with than any other sport in the world.

Every year, seemingly, a new batch of nuances and changes are implemented, all intended to improve the spectacle for supporters. And every year, the ever-more labyrinthine rules code reduces crowds and TV viewers (even, occasionally, players and TV commentators) to a state of bemused confusion, as the game is constantly paused and re-started to answer the demands of the latest modifications dreamed up in the ivory towers of rugby administration.

And yet despite this constant and annoying fiddling (and certainly not because of it, as the effect on the game itself can only ever be considered to be marginally positive) the game continues to grow in popularity, and well beyond it’s traditional borders of the former British Empire and its closest neighbours. The United States and Canada now boast creditable teams, as do locales as diverse as Japan, Russia, Argentina, Romania and Georgia.

Indeed, the most common comment one hears in the internet chat rooms and from friends gathered around the television is “I haven’t got a clue what’s going on, but I love it, it’s magnificent!”

One can only imagine how much more the public would enjoy it if they could actually follow the rules.

Regulating the almost unregulatable.

Anyhow, last night’s game was effectively brought to a close after just 19 minutes of the first half of an 80 minute game when the latest piece of administrative tinkering saw the young captain of Wales – and one of their most effective players – sent off for a “spear” tackle which was considered both deliberate and dangerous. (I’ll explain the spear tackle in more detail in a moment.)

For any code to seek to regulate precisely the manner in which two men of vast bulk throw themselves aggressively at each other at a run would seem something of a forlorn hope. The fact is, rugby is a potentially dangerous game, played by consenting adults who nevertheless enjoy the enormous adrenalin rush coupled with sublime ball handling and kicking skills that it represents.

That some control of rugby’s inherent aggression is necessary is undoubted. For example: to “high tackle” an opponent – that is to say to trail an arm at head height and loop it around a man’s neck or across his face as he runs past you at 20 miles an hour or more – is not just clumsy, it’s potentially homicidal. It is rightfully pounced on by referees and fans alike.

More problematical is the so-called “spear tackle”. (Also called a “tip tackle”.) Please forgive the next few lines of explanation, and bear with me, as you need to understand these niceties.

Imagine two big, hard-muscled men running at each other at full tilt. One hits the other about hip or waist-high, and tips him off-balance.  The tackling player then “lifts” the tackled player off the ground, that is to say his feet are now airborne. The tackled player’s head is carried forward and downward by the force of the tackle, and his feet leave the ground behind him, travelling upwards. In a moment, driven by the momentum of the tackling player, the tackled player’s body passes through a metaphorical horizontal line drawn above the ground, and he is then deliberately thrown down head first (like a spear being thrown into the ground).

The sanction for committing such a foul is a penalty. That is to say, the ball is given to the wrong team to play with, have a kick at goal, whatever. There is nothing in the rules that state the punishment should be an automatic “red card”.

However the International Rugby Board has said that  spear tackle should be a straight red card. An IRB memorandum on dangerous tackles from 8 June 2009 states: “At a subsequent IRB High Performance Referee Seminar at Lensbury referees were advised that for these types of tackles they were to start at red card as a sanction and work backwards.”

That a spear tackle can cause terrible injury to the tackled player is undeniable. To see how it is addressed in various codes, including American Football, you can click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spear_tackle. But two key things about last night’s scrubbing of the Welsh player need addressing.

The first is the element of culpability of the tackling player, and how it was judged by the referee.

To be clear, the maximum sanction for the foul is a sending off for the rest of the game. It is hardly ever used, as losing a player in a rugby match virtually predicates the result, more so than in a game like soccer, for example. For this reason, other options are available to the ref, including issuing a yellow card, in which the offender is “sin binned”  for then minutes, or just a penalty.

The level of sanction issued needs to address certain components of the tackle.

Was the tackled player deliberately lifted upward, that is to say did the tackling player push his body upwards to get the tackled player off his feet? Then, once the tackled player is in the unfortunate position of being un-grounded, does the tackling player deliberately push him down into the ground, or “spear”  him down, risking serious injury?

And this judgement takes place on an event that is surrounded by ballyhooing giants of men, operating at speed, in under a second, remember.

Regarding last night’s game, the Welsh have conceded that skipper Sam Warburton did push up slightly in his tackle, although whether this was deliberate or clumsy is a matter of opinion. What is very clear from slo-mo TV footage is that after the most ephemeral of downward motions (we are now talking tenths of a second being viewed) the French player is then “dropped”, not pushed, into the ground, and he lands primarily on his shoulders, not his head.

Much has been made of the speed with which referee Alain Rolland flashed the red card, to almost universal shock and criticism. He did not consult with his assistants, nor did he consult video evidence. He didn’t even stand still and have a think for a moment. And in acting as he did, he virtually awarded the game to France, and ensured that next week’s final, which will be against Australia or New Zealand, will be no contest whatsoever, as the French will undoubtedly fold like a pack of Gallic cards against opposition as fearsome as that. So except for tonight’s semi-final between Australia and NZ, then, the World Cup was effectively over the moment Rolland reacted so emphatically.

A little calm consideration would surely have seen a yellow card issued instead. But the referee, mesmerised by the eternal faffing and fenergling of the rules wallahs of the IRB, reacted spasmodically. Game over.

Referees … love ’em or hate ’em. Or, well, just hate ’em.

The second issue that needs to be addressed is the choice of Rolland to adjudicate last night’s game.

To maintain public support, any body, sporting or otherwise, needs not only to do the right thing, but to be seen to do the right thing.

Rolland is Irish. The team that Wales emphatically beat to reach this semi-final was, er, Ireland.

So why would those making the decisions in this World Cup select a man to ref the game who comes from a nation just defeated by one of the contestants, a nation he once played for, and where he played the bulk of his rugby before switching to refereering?

One doesn’t have to listen to dark allegations of inherent bias to consider such a decision to be dumb, dumb, dumb. It is hardly surprising, when the administrators could have chosen a ref from, say, Australia or New Zealand, that message boards the world over have claimed the Welsh were playing the ref last night, too.

Even more so, when one stops and considers – c’est incroyable! – that Alain Rolland is the son of a Frenchman, speaks fluent French, and was, in fact, given a host of French names by his father in order to remind him constantly of his French heritage.

How’s that for building confidence in the game?

And that Rolland will carry the stigma of this one, rushed decision for the rest of his career is also a shame. He is already the subject of a virulent online hate campaign.

Anyhow, make your own mind up. Let me know what you think. You can  see the tackle, and hear professional comment, here:

And just for fun, you can read about UK media comment here http://www.stuff.co.nz/sport/rugby/5793257/UK-media-vent-at-French-ref-after-Wales-loss

Max Boyce says it best

Meanwhile, I am indebted to my old friend Richard Ember for reminding me of the immortal Max Boyce’s song which today seems frighteningly prophetic:

I am an entertainer
And I sing for charity
For Oxfam and for Shelter
For those worse off than me.

Bangladesh, Barnado’s Homes,
And though I don’t get paid
It does one good to work
For things like Christian Aid.

But of all the concerts that I’ve done
For the homeless overseas
The one I did that pleased me most
Was not for refugees.

Twas for a home in Ireland
That stands amongst the trees
The Sunshine Home in Dublin
For blind Irish Referees.

That started me remembering Max Boyce and the influence his art has had on my life. I have met Max on a few occasions, notably in the changing rooms at Eastleigh Rugby Club after a hot, sweaty, feverish, hilarious show delivered to hundreds of people crammed into the tiny club rooms drinking vast quantities of “bitter ale”, where I had gone to squeeze his hand and say thank you to him for singing songs laden with emotion that celebrated my Welsh heritage so perfectly. His influence on my poetry about my childhood and my Welsh family was subtle but unmistakeable.

Known as a comic singer, primarily – and enmeshed, of course, in the rugby culture of the whole of Britain – it would be wrong to under-estimate the role he played as a cultural ambassador for Wales generally. Wandering the byways of YouTube I came across a rendition of “Duw, it’s hard.” (“God, it’s hard.”)

My mother used to say “Duw, it’s hard” when life bore down on her, widowed with a two year old and short of money. My Aunty Chrissie would murmur it, cigarette dropping from her mouth, after cheerfully dishing up plate after plate of dinner to a seemingly endless stream of family and friends in the back room of her tiny home in Milford Haven. I once heard a retired miner mumble it as he coughed black coal dust from his wrecked lungs, and took a long pull from his pint of beer on a bench at the pub next door to the retired miner’s home at Langland Bay near Swansea.

Watch the song, and feel in your hearts why Wales’s departure from the World Cup yesterday was so bitterly unfair. And weep a tear with me, for everything that is lost, and can never be regained, and not just on a rugby pitch, butty bach.

  1. Andy Hill says:

    Eloquent as always Steve, my take on the tackle was that Warburton realized he had taken the player through the imagined horizontal line and you can see him release the player, there was no attempt to drive the player to the ground, so no spearing. Max for the offence is therefore a sin binning, not a red card.

    Mr Rolland should not have been appointed for the match and the IRB should held responsible for that. How would Aussies react if the referee appointed for the match today was found to be a South African with a Kiwi father?

    Max Boyce…we all remember the like of Hymns and Arias, but Max’s ouvre was more than just a bunch of comic songs and also included poems and songs that reflected Welsh life and the tough miners, their woman, children and a country where the livelihood of many(coal mining and steel) was slowly dying.


  2. Richard Ember says:

    I don’t dispute that the red card was wrong but nevertheless, if Wales had kicked their penalties, or their conversion and dropped at goal on at least one straightforward occasion, they would have won the game anyway. Just saying……

    Anyhow, since when have you given a stuff about Rugby?


    • *laughs* Richard, it’s the only game I have ever played really well, although I suppose opinions on that judgement may differ.


      • Richard Ember says:

        I see. I never knew that you were an egg chaser.

        The appointment of a referee with French line was, by any interpretation, poor judgement in the extreme. He may ‘hate’ his French father but why put the guy in a position where he could run the risk of being accused of favouritism one way or the other?

        It is a bit like this 50p tax debate we are having here. Treasury says it is counter-productive but the perception of removing it would make the Government look very silly indeed. I am all in favour of low taxation and will gladly see the end of this rate and the tax burden generally (with consequent drops in Government expeditutre which by any measure outside of the Labour Party is vastly out of control) but do do it right now would be stupidity. Like appointing the dear old French/Irish referee – it looks bad.

        Some Administrator who made that decision should be losing his job.


  3. Chris Gans says:


    Thought the red was harsh…definitely a sin bin but not a sending off. Still the game was well within reach for the Welsh. I think a NZ/Wales final would have been truly delightful.Now I am not sure I will even bother getting up at 4am (Toronto time) to watch the France get thumped.

    More to your point about referee loyalties, incredibly the Aus/NZ game was ref’d by a South African after Aus had knocked of SA in a highly contreversial match I note Jobert’s early penalties against Pocock at the breakdown – I wouldn’t have been surprised if a Pocock had been sent to the sin bin. Thankfully not…

    If the IRB had judges these two (Joubert and Rolland) referees to be the best of the tournanment – why not switch the assignments and remove any potential odor. It is- after all- the World Cup, a once in 4 year chance to promote your game.


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