The Queensland Reds late last week made mention that they were seeking answers. And good luck to them.
Four times this Super Rugby Pacific season, they said, they had players miss games due to concussion or other injuries, caused by what they felt was high contact that they had referred to the SANZAAR Citing Commissioner. No further action was taken on any of them, they said.
James O’Connor missed the Blues loss on Friday night after being collected high in a ruck against the Chiefs in New Plymouth, leaving him with a shoulder complaint and concussion symptoms that triggered the mandatory 12-day stand-down period.
Before that, Tom Lynagh missed three games with concussion, after he was collected from behind after Queensland had conceded a try against Fijian Drua in Round 4, Filipo Daugunu was taken high in that same game in a tackle that went unpunished, and the Reds said they also referred an incident involving Harry Wilson in the loss to NSW a fortnight ago.
I can imagine 11 other coaches seeing this headline last week and smirking to themselves, “Ha, welcome to the club.” Because it’s hardly an issue isolated to the Reds.
A Moana Pasifika forward (and apologies here, I’ve rewatched this clip a dozen times and still can’t read the number to help me ID the player) was collected by as clear a direct shoulder to the head from Crusaders blindsider Sione Havili Talitui as they come back in Round 7, and the card remained untouched. Nary a citing, either.
Melbourne Rebels gun Carter Gordon was forced from the field for a HIA in Round 10, also against Moana Pasifika, in a hit that wasn’t picked up live and which left the Rebels far from impressed.
And these are just a couple of examples that remain fresh in the mind; it’s certainly not an exhaustive list.
It’s also worth noting that while foul play can cause concussion and injury, not all concussions are caused by foul play. Just because a player has suffered a concussion injury, we can’t automatically assume foul play.
It’s easy for a team to say “we referred it up the line but nothing happened,” but the Citing Commissioner needs to be convinced any incident meets the red card threshold before they can refer it up to the Foul Play Review Committee.
The obvious conclusion in all these Reds’ cases is that the threshold wasn’t met.
It’s worth remembering, too, that the Citing Commissioner looks at all incidents in the referee’s report, plus anything they see themselves, plus whatever the teams involved refer as well. The Citing Commissioner can hand out Warnings (the artist formally known as an Off-Field Yellow) for incidents that get close, but essentially, anything else not meeting the red card threshold just isn’t announced and is considered dealt with.
It is, therefore, a touch disingenuous to suggest nothing further happened after the referral.
That all said, there certainly has been disconnect between on-field action and judicial outcome this season, just as has been the case in most seasons.
The Reds’ Sef Fa’agase was cited and suspended for three weeks in that Drua game for dangerous contact on Eroni Sau, an incident that wasn’t carded at the time.
Lachie Swinton was infamously rubbed out for seven weeks (less tackle school) for his undetected first-minute hit on the Western Force’s Jake Strachan in Round 8, and the Rebels’ Josh Kemeny was only last week suspended for three weeks as well, for a high shot on Brumbies centre Len Ikitau.
It works the other way too: within a week of each other at the start of the season, the Force’s Ollie Callan and Siosifa Amone, and Moana’s Mike McKee were all cleared of dangerous tackles when the FPRC ruled none met the red card threshold. Callan and Amone were even upgraded to red cards after TMO reviews in-game.
So with this in mind, it was interesting to hear Angus Gardner say recently that those occasions of complete judicial contradiction to on-field decisions have next to no effect on referees heading into their next game.
Speaking to Harry Jones and myself a fortnight ago on The Roar Rugby Podcast, Gardner was quick to explain why.
“We make our decision on the field and then step to one side, and not worry too much about what they do. They have their own processes,” he said.
“And I think the difficulty for us is, sure, you’d love if our decision matched their decision, and we’re all aligned but they get 38 camera angles and we might get two. They’ll get a day and a half to look through them, and as many replays as they want.
“It’s just not a realistic comparison unfortunately.”
But Sam Cordingley, Queensland’s head of rugby, said last week that they’d been granted an audience with World Rugby to express their concerns, and I’m sure the World Rugby reps in the room will make them feel like their concerns have been heard.
But make no mistake, there is zero chance of further action happening. For one thing, even if an enquiring phone call is made to the SANZAAR people, the response will be “We followed your guidelines on foul play to the letter.”
The only real outcome will be that high tackles and dangerous contact, and foul play in general, will be front of mind when World Rugby bring their squad of officials together heading into the World Cup later in the year.
In fact, referees will deal with incidents the same way they always have, but the TMOs will be on notice.
And if the TMO referral method, or World Rugby’s pet project of some kind of bunker system are employed for the Cup, then the margins for error afforded to TMOs will be even smaller again.
The lessons of the 2019 RWC yellow card and swift retreat debacle will still be ringing in the World Rugby ears, and they will be wanting to avoid foul play controversies above all else.
Not even so much as Michael Hooper being coat-hangered late and off the ball will be tolerated, and just maybe, that will be the legacy of Queensland’s disappointment.