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The Wrap: Red, yellow, green - rugby’s ‘traffic light’ World Cup

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7th October, 2019
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The population of greater metropolitan Tokyo is estimated at 13.5 million people, with the city containing approximately 4 million registered vehicles.

If Australia’s ratio of car ownership per population was applied, Tokyo would contain approximately 8.1 million vehicles – over double.

The reasons why fewer Japanese own and drive cars are obvious. While there are plenty of places to drive there are far fewer to park once you get somewhere. And that drive, wherever it is you might be headed, will almost certainly be punctuated by an inordinate amount of traffic lights, such is the sheer number of streets that criss-cross the urban network.

Enough to exasperate all but the very patient driver.

It was a frustrating, traffic light weekend for this World Cup too; green, yellow and red moments punctuating the on and off field action, as the pool phase nears completion.

The Wallabies looked resplendent in their green Indigenous strip against Uruguay, an initiative that received widespread acclamation from the rugby community and touring fans.

It might have taken until his 94th Test to trouble the scoreboard attendant but, after a well-publicised extended break from the game, it was a green light for James Slipper too; the manner in which his Wallabies’ team-mates celebrated his first Test try speaking to Slipper’s value and high standing within the squad.

Wallabies

(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Jordan Petaia’s long-awaited debut performance was another highlight, Petaia showing off the skills and feel for the game that will eventually see him as long-term custodian of the Wallabies’ No 13 jersey.

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A rule of thumb for this World Cup seems to be eight tries as a pass mark for tier one countries against the lesser lights. Australia managed seven against Uruguay, which felt about right for a performance that contained a few positives, dotted with as many mediocre moments – yellow cards for Adam Coleman and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto among them.

There were periods – too many and for too long – where the Wallabies never achieved the accuracy or dominance they or their fans may have expected, but it’s always unwise to draw too much from these types of games.

No injuries, no suspensions, a few nice tries and a good physical workout is more than a pass mark, no matter the final score.

With the prospect of a quarter-final with England looming, let’s call this a ‘yellow light’ performance – proceed with caution.

Two players proceeded without caution were Italian props Andrea Lovotti and Nicola Quaglio, whose bone-headed lifting and dropping of South Africa’s Duane Vermuelen on his head, led to Lovotti receiving a red card and Quaglio later being adjudged by the citing commissioner to have met the same red card threshold.

The point being missed by those who complain about cards ruining rugby is that there is no process that can adequately cater for players who commit such stupid and dangerous acts.

Indeed, there was valid criticism to be made here of referee Wayne Barnes who, clearly reluctant to dismiss both players at once, forgot that if two people commit a murder, the police don’t charge only the one who they deem most culpable, and let the other go scot free.

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The aftermath also delivered an astonishing decision by the judiciary – both players receiving only a three-match suspension for their deed.

While all incidents are unique and are assessed on their respective merits, the notion that Reece Hodge’s three-match suspension somehow equates to this incident is an embarrassingly red moment for World Rugby and sends a mixed message – something that could have so easily been avoided with more careful thought and execution.

If you could choose two countries as sure bets to provide a brilliant pre-match atmosphere on a warm, sunny match day, England and Argentina would be at the top of the list.

Outside and in, animated, vocal supporters shrouded Tokyo Stadium with song, setting up a promise that, unfortunately, the match never really delivered on.

The two defining moments of the contest came early. After just three minutes Benjamin Urdipilletta chipped a precision ball that hit a flying Matias Moroni on the chest, sweeping the Pumas to an attacking 5m scrum.

From there the Pumas went close, then closer again, with referee Nigel Owens placing England under a warning for three consecutive offsides.

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Both he and Argentina should have been bolder. Owens kept his cards in his pocket and Pumas captain Pablo Matera chose not to keep the pressure on but pointed to the posts instead; three points and fifteen players representing a cunning, but undeserved escape for England.

That both Owens and Matera took their options only because the game was so fresh is instructive when, in truth, every minute of a match carries equal value.

The second pivotal moment came in the 16th minute, when Tomas Lavanini collected Owen Farrell high with his left shoulder. Referee Owens was reluctant but there was no denying the vision; Farrell slipping into contact or not, Lavanini was too upright and wasn’t in control of himself, Farrell’s head snapped back upon impact and the card could only be one colour, red.

Tomas Lavanini

Tomas Lavanini (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Although he has worked to clean his game up, if the saying ‘live by the sword, die by the sword’ applied to any rugby player, it would be Lavanini. Or Farrell. Oh the irony.

Setting aside the well-intentioned but misplaced ‘cards are ruining rugby’ complaints, there is one anomaly which does need solving around this issue. If Farrell was hit in the head with force, enough for the tackler Lavanini to be sent from the field, why was he allowed to stay on the field and not automatically required to submit to a Head Injury Assessment?

With many fans (and some coaches) slow to get on board, World Rugby can help itself and the game by tightening this protocol and not sending yet another mixed message.

It’s never easy to make an accurate assessment when the opposition plays a man short, but England’s recycle game was cohesive – their loose forwards are nicely balanced and the value of the athletic Maru Itoje was again evident, seemingly able to switch at will between tight and loose.

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England also has genuine pace on the edges – even if Farrell and George Ford once or twice too often ignored this and kicked for the corner post.

They will enter their probable quarter-final against Australia as warm favourite, and while the Wallabies will rightly hold no fear of being dominated at scrum or lineout, England coach Eddie Jones is also right to feel content with where his team sits right now.

It was sad to see Argentina’s World Cup ended with such a whimper. Some late interplay and a sweet backline move saw Moroni post a great try, but it represented nothing more than what could have been.

With the vanquished Lavanini looking on, brave and accomplished halfback Tomas Cubelli limped from the field, Emiliano Boffelli kicked the ball dead in goal from an attacking penalty then overcorrected at the second attempt, before things petered out in a final, token bit of niggle. All to the humiliating strains of ‘Swing Low’.

With the Jaguares finally coming of age this year in Super Rugby, a World Cup that promised so much for Argentina has fizzled out as quickly as it began. Unsurprisingly for a side that, for the most part, live in each other’s pockets, the Pumas looked stale and bereft of new ideas.

A huge challenge for their rugby union, and SANZAAR for that matter, is to find a way to broaden their professional player base.

Saturday concluded with a continuation of Japan’s march through pool A, dealing to Samoa by 38-19. It wasn’t handed to them on a plate, Samoa giving it everything they had but lacking in class and clinical finishing ability.

Japan Rugby Union

Japan rugby (WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)

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Assuming that Scotland safely negotiates their midweek match against Russia, collecting a bonus point along the way, all is now set up for a massive, ‘winner takes all’ clash in Tokyo next Sunday, between Scotland and the hosts.

It will be a huge achievement if Japan – now with a ridiculously heavy weight of expectation on their shoulders – tops the pool and qualifies for the quarter-finals for the first time in their history. But frankly, after an unconvincing start, and seemingly everyone else in the world backing their opponent, it will also be a great achievement if Scotland can halt that momentum and come through themselves.

The match ended on a puzzling note, referee Jaco Peyper pinging Samoa replacement half back Pele Cowley for a crooked scrum feed. Crooked it was, but no more so than countless others seen in this tournament and on any other rugby field, every week. Ammunition for those fans demanding greater consistency from referees.

The bigger story here isn’t about cards ruining rugby. Referees picking on halfbacks – now that’s a ‘red hot’ issue worth complaining about!

The All Blacks’ match with Namibia would have been one that Josh Ioane would have been earmarked to start in, had he made the final squad – the selectors choosing to take Ben Smith and Jordie Barrett and avail themselves of Barrett’s utility instead.

And as soon as the returning Brodie Retallick soared to take the first lineout, and Barrett speared a cross-kick onto the chest of the sweet-stepping Sevu Reece, it was clear that a sound decision had been made.

TJ Perenara’s late injection at flyhalf offered further evidence of ample cover, his brilliant 78th minute try a highlight of the tournament so far, and an expression of the dynamic enthusiasm he always brings to his game.

Rieko Ioane New Zealand Rugby Union All Blacks 2017

(AAP Image/SNPA, David Rowland)

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Retallick saw out a pre-determined 30 minutes, and looks to be fully recovered from his dislocated shoulder. The sight of him powering solo through a set of shuttle runs while the second half played out will have warmed the hearts of all New Zealand supporters.

There was nice continuity from Namibia to start, and even after conceding to Reece, they stayed in the fight, profiting from their own ability to retain possession, and some untidy work from New Zealand at the breakdown.

71-9 against was a harsh score-line, but it’s not false flattery to say that the Namibian team, scrumhalf Damian Stevens the best of them, and their coach, Welshman Phil Davies, emerged with their reputations enhanced.

The match delivered two yellow cards, to All Blacks’ front rowers Nepo Laulala and Ofa Tu’ungafasi, and more grist for the ‘cards ruining rugby’ mill.

The tackles, and the treatment by referee Pascal Gauzere were carbon copies of each other; Gauzere not side-stepping the obvious high contact, but taking into account mitigation due to both tackled players falling to their knees at the point of contact.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen accepted both rulings as fair under the current guidelines, but made the obvious point that if a ball carrier stays low to the ground, and the tackler is required to use his arms in making the tackle, it doesn’t leave the tackler with many options.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen smiles at a press conference

Steve Hansen. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

In my view World Rugby has nowhere near the problem with laws and the referees’ application of yellow and red cards than what many people believe.

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The uproar from within Tokyo Stadium from fans demanding a card for Manu Tualagi tackling Emiliano Boffelli in the air – a minor incident which Owens handled swiftly and correctly – speaks not to a problem with the game, but to a mish-mash of emotion, ignorance and immaturity among fans and some commentators.

It would be helpful if fans too, took on some of the responsibility for helping the game transform through this period, one where the game’s overseers are placing greater emphasis on protecting players from concussion while, at the same time, endeavouring to preserve the integrity of the contest.

The immediate, specific challenge is for World Rugby to find the sweet spot that provides referees with sufficient breathing room to apply what they describe as ‘mitigating factors’, acknowledging that ball carriers too, can contribute to the risk, and which further recognises – without diminishing the intent to minimise incidences of high contact – the occasions where contact in a collision sport is incidental and accidental.

Certainly, AFL is an example of a sport that does not punish the tackler if the tackled player knowingly ducks into contact, and where umpires, players, coaches, fans and media seem mostly at peace with the outcomes.

A fix by next weekend would be great thanks, although there will almost certainly be more toing and froing required over a period of time, as everyone eventually settles onto the same page.

But for now, given the fallibility of players, and the high stakes on offer, it would be wishful thinking of the highest order to believe that the remainder of this World Cup will be free of frustration and chaos at the traffic lights.