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Refs should be made to front up and explain themselves after Connor Vest broken neck incident

Roar Rookie
30th May, 2023
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Roar Rookie
30th May, 2023
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Nine times out of ten, Australian sides go to New Zealand and get beaten, belted even, by a better team. A much better team.

The Reds loss against the Highlanders was not one of those 9 times.

If you love rugby as opposed to just New Zealand Rugby, you’ll recognise questions need to be asked about the performance of the referee, touch judges and TMO.

In an age where yellow cards are handed out like candy and suspensions are seemingly quadruple the length they used to be, it is difficult to understand how the Highlanders played the full game with 15 men.

It is even harder to understand how it is that senior officials on both sides of the Tasman have remained silent so far.

Did the officials get it right on the night or not?

Forget the outcome of the game for a moment, forget that it was probably a match played between two ‘also rans’ scrapping for the 7th or 8th finals spot in a 12 team competition.

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If Rugby is to convince anyone that it’s serious about player welfare, you can’t have no armed shoulder tackles to the neck region go unsanctioned when we now regularly see the most innocuous high contact result in cards and even appearances at the judiciary.

Harry Wilson’s comments yesterday should be just the start:

“For us as a playing group we hope so [it will be looked at further] because rugby’s been really big on the player welfare and there wasn’t much player welfare there with a no-arms tackle to the head,” Wilson told reporters on Monday.

The referee, admittedly following ‘guidance’ from the TMO was relatively swift to blurt out “There’s no foul play. There’s no foul play,”. The rationale seemed to be that Vest had low body height when contact was made.

What absolute rubbish. Negligence doesn’t cover it.

We’ve all heard the three stage deliberation that officials are meant to follow 1001 times by now.

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Was it high, was there force are there mitigating factors?

Connor Vest of the Reds charges forward during the round 14 Super Rugby Pacific match between Highlanders and Queensland Reds at Forsyth Barr Stadium, on May 26, 2023, in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Connor Vest of the Reds charges forward during the round 14 Super Rugby Pacific match between Highlanders and Queensland Reds at Forsyth Barr Stadium, on May 26, 2023, in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

The only mitigating factor was Vest’s body height. Other than that, it was a no arms, shoulder charge to the head and neck region with force.

Paul Cully writing for Kiwi papers earlier this week had this to say:

“The first thing to note is that Makalio’s attempted tackle was illegal. He led with his shoulder, there’s no wrapping motion with his arms, and he effectively falls off his feet to get underneath Vest.

“In terms of Frizell’s action… he gets low – in fact he’s crouching – but there’s no real attempt to wrap his arms in the tackle, and his shoulder makes contact with Vest’s head.”

In other words there was not one but two illegal tackles on Vest at the same time, one worthy of a penalty and the other at least a yellow card.

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There is no doubt at all that, even in New Zealand, the crowd has a significant influence on the TMO process and therefore the onfield decision making of referees.

This influence is growing and the subsequent skewing of decisions and pressure on referees to ‘downgrade’ offences is a clear and present danger to the fabric of the game.

What was incredible about last Friday is that the officials had every opportunity to examine the high contact hit on Vest and a later one on James O’Connor but got both wrong.

Earlier this week, Christy Doran noted that:

“The incident [armless tackles on Vest] wasn’t the only one that went unpunished, with Freddie Burns escaping sanction for a high shot on James O’Connor as the experienced Test utility back ran down the touchline.”

Given that the hit on JOC was right in the middle of what many believe may be Super Rugby’s try of the year, you’d expect it might have been looked at more closely. It was another shoulder to the head, catching O’Connor flush on the chin.

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But there was nothing.

The other aspect to all this is that crowds and the general rugby public are already frustrated with the stop start nature of games as well as the over-use of cards.

But when armless, high tackles resulting in broken necks go unpunished, it heightens the frustration. People become even more disillusioned.

It also feeds a narrative that sides need to be 10 points better to win in New Zealand because home teams always get the rub of the green.

It’s a narrative that’s been around long before last weekend and is popularly held in South Africa for instance. They’ll still, rightly, complain about Bismarck Du Plessis yellow card for a completely legal tackle on Dan Carter in September 2013!

This narrative is fed when even the commentary team is noting knock-ons and forward passes in the lead up to tries but the four officials involved are repeatedly blind to them.

The officiating team in question needs to front a public panel to adequately explain the positions it took. At the very least, the competition needs to address these matters.

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Did the officiating team last Friday get it wrong or not?

Again, 9 times out of 10 Kiwi sides at provincial and Test level are just far too good for their opposition. The Reds vs Highlanders was not one of those times.

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