There are times during a rugby season where certain aspects and laws of the game are examined, tested, and perhaps altered by the International Rugby Board.
Although the latter rarely occurs until the end of a season, directives are constantly being sent to clubs and unions about certain issues of the game.
As a player, it’s always obvious to know when one of these messages has been sent and a crack down on a part of the game is occurring.
Firstly, there’s the repetitive reel of clips from across the rugby world being shown in the gym, with examples and descriptions of what is legal and illegal in reference to the part of the game in focus.
Secondly, Monday’s training schedule has suddenly been changed from an active recovery session, to a group meeting and discussion on the laws of the game.
And finally, it’s always a particular instance in a match, that has sparked universal opinion and gathered extreme media attention, forcing the boards to take action.
This Monday it was all about taking the player out in the air, and has come in the wake of a red card that was issued to Ulster fullback Jared Payne in the Heineken Cup quarter final. Payne was sent off for taking Saracens number 15 Alex Goode in the air as he was attempting to collect a high ball. He subsequently landed on his neck and was forced from the field on a stretcher.
It was a decision from the referee that divided opinion, not least because Payne had his eyes on the ball the whole time and had no intent, nor physically attempted, to tackle Goode in the air. Even Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt has come out and said he thought it was unjustified, and that the subsequent red card decision has “changed the landscape of rugby”.
I was at the game in Belfast, and the home crowd’s reaction to Jerome Garces’ influential game-changing decision was fuelled with fury and outrage. I dare not say there and then, and probably not even now as an ex-Ulster player, that I thought the correct decision had been made.
The laws of the game back up my agreement to Garces’ bold and confident decision, in what would have been an intense and difficult few minutes for him given the hostility of a parochial home crowd.
According to the IRB laws, the steps involved in making a correct and consistent decision in regard to tackling players in the air are:
1. Safety requirement – protect players in the air
2. Unintentional act does not mean no yellow or red card
3. For chasing players, saying they have their eyes on the ball is not a strong enough argument – they have a responsibility for the safety of the receiver.
As a fullback myself, I welcome the directive passed down from the IRB on emphasising the need for players in the air to be protected, and those that don’t adhere to the laws, accidental or not, be treated firmly.
The safety of the player is paramount, especially when he is in the position of being of the ground, with eyes on the ball and not knowing what’s ahead of him.
Retrieving a high ball is one of the main characteristics of being a fullback. I’ll admit I never used to like taking them, and to be honest a few years ago it wasn’t the strongest part of my game.
Since moving to UK and competing in European club rugby, where at times the adverse weather conditions lead to a more territorial style of play, it’s something that I needed to improve.
It’s now the aspect of my position that I love the most. I enjoy the challenge of competing in the air and have the confidence to launch off the ground to try and regain possession for my team.
The one thing that gave me the confidence, and the message that I’d give to any young wingers and fullbacks, is that once you’re in the air you can’t be touched. This will give you the ability to strongly be a force in the air.
That’s why it’s important that the laws are firmly adhered too.
This doesn’t mean collecting a high ball is any easier to accomplish, as there will always be a contest when in the air, especially once you hit the ground. You have to expect a collision when in the air, but only from someone, like you, who is competing for the ball, and not caught in the grey area where injuries occur.
The only issue that I have with the law is how the outcome determines the referee’s decision. Garces explained that because Goode had landed on his neck, it was a red card. Had he landed on his hip, and therefore stayed on the field, it would have only been 10 minutes in the bin for Payne.
For me, the action is the thing that should be punished, it shouldn’t be left to chance to determine the the outcome of the decision. The one thing that I know is that if two players are strongly competing for the ball, both in the air in a fair contest, all the what ifs can be avoided.
More often than not, when there is a contest between two people at the breakdown, tackle contest, or in the air, if both approach it hard and 100 per cent committed, there is rarely an injury.
It’s when one player is hesitant, and not fully committed to the contest, when accidental injuries occur.
We, as players, have to realise our role in the situation, and not pin all the blame on the referee for following the letter of the law, especially when it’s our safety they are looking out for.