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A rugby riddle for today: What has a backbone but no spine?

Bernard Foley of the Wallabies. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
Expert
26th June, 2018
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The fate of the series was in the balance until the very last play of the game. If Bernard Foley’s pass had reached its target, the Wallabies would have scored a try to win the series; but the ball didn’t go to hand, and Ireland took the Lansdowne trophy back home instead.

The margins in international rugby are as slim as the width of Jacob Stockdale’s thumb. Even at the very end, the final phase was reviewed by the TMO for a suspected knock-on by the Ireland left wing:

Had the case for a touch been proven beyond reasonable doubt, it would have been game, set and match to Australia. A penalty and yellow card for sure, and quite possibly a penalty try too. In the professional era, one of the main planks of the law is the penalisation of negative play.

In a series decider between two evenly-matched teams, narrow margins mean that the spotlight inevitably tends to fall upon refereeing decisions. Rugby’s backbone is its law-book, but the laws can be so complicated that they rely heavily – sometimes too heavily – on sensible translation by match officials.

Ultimately it is their interpretations which give the game its ‘spine’ by upholding its true values on the field.

The sending-off of France fullback Benjamin Fall in the second Test against New Zealand highlighted an interpretive problem – how best to keep the balance between the player safety and the physical contest, especially with the ball in the air?

Fall was sent off by match official Angus Gardner, who promptly found the carpet pulled from underneath his feet when World Rugby decided to rescind the red card, on the basis that Fall was pushed into Beauden Barrett by one of his All Black teammates.

Barrett landed on his head and neck and missed both the remainder of the game at the Cake Tin and the whole of the third Test with concussion as a result of the challenge. World Rugby, and presumably the refs’ own high-performance manager Alain Rolland, had come down on the side of the contest. Or so it seemed:

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“The primary consideration [for the issuing of cards in an aerial competition] is whether both players were in a realistic position to regather the ball.”

The problem recurred after three successive high ball challenges by Israel Folau on Ireland captain Peter O’Mahony from Wallaby kick-offs in the first half on Saturday evening.

Folau received a yellow card from Pascal Gaüzère for the third incident in the 31st minute, but has subsequently been cited by the commissioner and will now face a disciplinary hearing, for a potentially more dangerous challenge in the ninth minute which was considered legal by the referee at the time.

The kernel of the issue is a grey area which exists between the referee’s decision-making protocol and the laws regarding dangerous play. The protocol was neatly summarised as a flow chart by Kiwi broadcaster Jason Pine:

The laws give a different slant:

Law 9.17: A player must not tackle, charge, pull, push or grasp an opponent whose feet are off the ground.
Law 9.11: Players must not do anything that is reckless or dangerous to others.

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Here are the two kick-offs in question:

In both cases, there can no question that Israel Folau is in the air and contesting for the ball, because it comes back on the Australian side. So from the viewpoint of the referee’s decision-making protocol, the answer to the first question is ‘yes’, and therefore it is ‘play on’.

But in the terminology of laws 9.17 and 9.11, Folau is clearly ‘pulling’ and ‘grasping’ an opponent ‘whose feet are off the ground’, and the outcome is dangerous – as the following two screenshots illustrate:

His left arm is a particular and repeated problem, gripping O’Mahony under the left armpit and tipping him over in a situation where he cannot control his body. Like Barrett, O’Mahony landed on his head/neck in the ninth minute, left the field under the Head Injury Assessment, and did not return. If there was a fourth Test next Saturday, he would probably not be fit to play in it.

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So where do referees find their decision-making spine: in the intent of the contestant, or in the outcome of his action? In the ninth minute, Gauzère came down on the side of intent, in the 31st (and only after prompting by the TMO) he judged from outcome.

In the 20th minute he judged from outcome when sending off Stockdale for leading with a forearm to Nick Phipps’ throat:

Intent does not matter, the outcome is dangerous and Stockdale is rightly sin-binned. If he had got a touch to Foley’s pass and prevented a try in the final moments, the outcome would also have been sanctioned – and Gauzère would have been right to do that as well.

The contradictions are there for all to see, and the shadow hovering in the background is the class-action lawsuit brought by more than 4500 ex-NFL players and their families in the USA. It has resulted in a settlement which is likely to pay out more than $1bn in compensation for the long-term consequences of head trauma in retirement.

On the field, the Wallabies fought Ireland tooth and nail throughout the series, all the way to a very bitter end. They have certainly discovered plenty of backbone, and there is no shortage either of character or of new talent coming through into the playing ranks.

If there is a caveat, it is in the spine of the team. That spine runs from the hooker in the centre of the scrum, through the number 8 at the base to the two halves who forge the tactical metal of the side, and the fullback who makes the decisions from his privileged ‘crow’s nest’ in the backfield.

The excellence of that spine is crucial to sustained success, as South Africa have recently proved in their series with England. The selection of experienced European-based players like Duane Vermeulen at 8, Faf de Klerk at scrumhalf and Willie le Roux at fullback has kick-started a change of fortunes, and the return of Malcolm Marx or Bismarck du Plessis at hooker will only bolster further improvement in The Rugby Championship.

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The situation for Michael Cheika’s Australia is less clear. At hooker, the choice could be any one of four – Brandon Paenga-Amosa, Tolu Latu and returnees Jordan Uelese and Tatafu Polota-Nau. Number 8 still raises the ghost of where David Pocock should or should not be playing, while at 10 Foley seems to defer to the man outside him, Kurtley Beale, as a tactical organiser.

Only two of the spinal positions are completely unimpeachable, when they are occupied by Will Genia at scrum-half and Israel Folau at fullback.

Genia was injured for the game in Sydney, and his place was taken by Waratah veteran Nick Phipps. Despite his penchant for experimentation in virtually every other position on the field, the halves are one area where Cheika has stubbornly refused to move beyond the known alternatives – Genia and Phipps at 9, Foley at 10. As a result, depth in these positions is desperately thin.

Phipps has clearly made efforts to improve the weaknesses in his game, and he plays with a heart and energy level which Cheika obviously admires. He has a great engine, which meant that he was absent at only one of the 79 rucks where his presence could have been expected.

That engine is of particular value in the defensive backfield pattern the Wallabies employ. As I pointed out in this article after the tour game against England at the end of last year, Australia give him a lot of responsibility in this area – he frequently has one half of the field to himself and is trusted to judge whether to play near the line or drop deeper into the backfield.

Against Ireland, his energy in cover defence was outstanding. From lineout, he starts at sweeper behind the ruck as Johnny Sexton makes the kick-pass:

By the time Keith Earls receives it on the far side of the field, Phipps is already up and running, completing the tackle on Earls as David Pocock draws a penalty with a neat sidestep at the breakdown:

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An even better example occurred at the beginning of the second half, with Phipps again transitioning from the sweeper role behind the ruck to cover the far corner of the field off another kick by Sexton:

If Phipps doesn’t make this play, Ireland must score a try with Dane Haylett-Petty guarding the other side of the field.

Phipps contributed a jackal turnover penalty at the breakdown a few minutes later:

Phipps is tough, and his work-rate to the ruck and as a cover defender is exemplary. The issues lie on the other side of the ball.

The two Folau kick-offs both illustrate what can happen when he is forced to pass under duress. When passing under pressure, he passes the pressure on to the man outside him!

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It was noticeable throughout the game how close the Wallaby first receiver had to stand to receive the pass from Phipps – typically less than ten metres. As soon as the distance widened, the margin for error was far greater, with Phipps taking steps towards the target, requiring more preparation and the delivery describing a looped rather than flat trajectory.

When he came on as replacement, Joe Powell was able to both increase the tempo of attack between breakdowns and offer first receiver more width in his alignment:

Compare this with a similar example from the start of the game:

Powell’s pass reaches Israel Folau fast and flat over approximately 15 metres, and that gives both Folau and Samu Kerevi the time to attack the outside shoulders of the defenders confronting them.

The difference can be pinpointed as Israel Folau goes to make the second pass:

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These are narrow margins, but they are nonetheless significant. The Ireland defensive line in the second instance enjoys less time to present as a unified front, and Kerevi has more space in which to work up a head of steam. In a side which attacks mainly off 10 or 12, that extra length and speed off the base is invaluable.

Meanwhile, the tactical kicking was divided between Foley and Beale, who made 14 of Australia’s 16 kicks on the day. Phipps did not make one kick, nor did he offer to threaten the inside three defenders on the fringes of the ruck:

This is Phipps’ ‘run’. He takes a couple of steps outside but does not commit either of the first two defenders (James Ryan and CJ Stander). The outcome is that his receiver, Latu, overruns the pass and is facing his own goal-line as he receives the ball.

Summary
The final Test between Australia and Ireland went right down to the wire. It was easily the most closely-contested June series in 2018, and it produced most of the high-quality football. The two nations consolidated rather than weakened their number two and number three rankings in the world.

For Michael Cheika, there remains a concern about the spine of the team and the depth in those pivotal positions at 2, 8, 9, 10 and 15. Through no fault of his own, the situation at hooker is as clear as mud, and the seesawing debate about the viability of two open-side flankers – one of whom probably has to play at 8 – will no doubt continue.

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However, another series has come and gone in which development time could have been afforded to one of the younger scrum-halves, or a replacement for Bernard Foley at outside-half. Ireland chose to blood Joey Carbery in the first Test even though it could have cost them the series. It was a calculated risk which may help Ireland’s cause in the long term.

The lawmakers and match officials must have concerns about the spine of values within the game. A clear consensus about the priority of player safety, or a physical contest has not emerged. Referees, presumably obeying the protocols they are given from on high, are caught between a rock and hard place as rugby continues to wobble from one pole to the other in the professional era.

Steve Hansen has suggested the idea of allowing two ‘coaches’ challenges’ per game (as in the NFL) to take the pressure off the referee: “World Rugby now have to go away and have a look at it themselves. Common sense should surely prevail.” It will, but only if they’re listening, and finally show some backbone.