England’s World Cup winning coach Clive Woodward led a torrent of outrage at the “mind boggling decision” to clear Owen Farrell to lead England into the World Cup.
Farrell was sent off at Twickenham on Saturday when his yellow card for a dangerous tackle on Taine Basham was upgraded to a red by the ‘Bunker’ review system.
But a hearing decided that a “late change in dynamics” due to Jamie George’s involvement in the contact area “brought about a sudden and significant change in direction from the ball carrier”.
Using this mitigation it was decided by the all-Australian panel that Farrell – who was expected to face a mid-range sanction of a six-week suspension – should have been hit with a sin-binning only.
Farrell appeared before the independent judicial committee (chair, Adam Casselden, a Sydney barrister, and former Wallabies John Langford and David Croft) via video link and admitted that his shoulder-led tackle to the head of Basham – who as a result failed an HIA – was illegal but worthy of 10 minutes in the sin-bin only.
After a review of the evidence, it was decided that the “foul play review officer was wrong, on the balance of probabilities, to upgrade the yellow card”.
In coming to its verdict, the panel said no criticism of the foul play review officer was being made given the time in which he had to review the incident and make a decision.
It means that Farrell, who was widely tipped to miss the World Cup opener against Argentina on September 9, is free to lead England against Ireland on Saturday.
England are possible quarter-final opponents for Australia.
The decision caused widespread concern, with a degree of outrage in rugby circles with claims of double standards.
Some pointed at a 10 week suspension recently handed down to Tonga’s George Moala as proof of double standards in the treatment of international players.
Tongan midfielder Pita Ahki was much more direct.
Rugby writer Nik Simon, in the Daily Mail, said it showed “England are one of the few countries who could have got away with this one.
“Money brings power and, unlike their rivals, the RFU can afford to have their own in-house counsel with 35 years’ experience at the bar,” he wrote.
“The laws of the game are flaky at the best of times so are we really surprised that Richard Smith, a member of the King’s Counsel, was able to unpick the legalities of a high tackle?
“Sadly, we live in an age of the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. The likes of Italy, Samoa or Fiji would never be able to afford such representation and their skipper would have had the book thrown at them.
“It is a terrible look for a sport suffering from an image crisis.”
The decision did have some supporters, notably France defence coach Shaun Edwards.
“Justice has been served for Owen Farrell. I was one of the few people who thought his red card was wrong. It’s right that he’s been cleared to play,” he wrote in the Daily Mail.
“We’re living in a world of slow-motion replays. These frame-by-frame pictures are so different to what players see on the pitch.
“Things happen in a split second. If the ball carrier changes direction late – as we saw with Taine Basham – it’s almost impossible for the tackler to react.”
He added: “Rugby’s in a funny place around player safety. Of course player safety is paramount but the reality is it’s a collision sport. When we talking about tackling lower around the legs, that comes with risks too.
“The chop tackle is great when you’re coming from the side of someone but if someone’s running directly at you and you hit your head on their knee then there’s a big chance you’ll get knocked out.”
For the World Cup, I’ve asked where the tackle target is if someone had a pick-and-go close to the try-line. The carrier’s head is the height of their hips so where are you supposed to hit? I’ve got no idea and I’ve still not had an answer.
“Rugby’s a game of rules. It’s not a game for thugs. You’re not allowed to hit people in the head but sometimes you mistime things and get it wrong. Owen’s a world class player and I’m sure he practises tackle technique with Saracens and England. Mistakes will happen when you only have a millisecond to react.”
There were plenty lining up on the other side though.
Former World Rugby vice chair and former Pumas halfback Agustin Pichot’s reaction was clear.
England’s 2003 World Cup winning Clive Woodward was astounded.
“The mindboggling decision to rescind Owen Farrell’s red card is yet another example of rugby shooting itself in the foot. It has made the game a complete and utter laughing stock,” wrote Woodward in the Daily Mail.
“When I first heard Farrell had been cleared to play with immediate effect, I was lost for words and just totally dumbfounded. My reaction was: ‘You have got to be joking?’
“Everyone I’ve spoken to in the game was expecting the England captain to face a long ban and miss at least the early stages of the World Cup after his high shot on Wales’ Taine Basham.
“Those same people, like me, were left completely shocked by Farrell’s exoneration. Personally, I’m flabbergasted. There is no bigger supporter of English rugby – and Farrell – than me.
“England will, of course, be very pleased Farrell is now available for the World Cup. But I have to say the decision on him has not done them or the game itself any favours.”
Daily Mail rugby writer Chris Foy agreed.
“The fact that it’s Owen Farrell in the eye of this global storm just polarises the debate. But strip it all back and it’s quite simple; someone tackled too high, dangerously, illegally, making contact with the head of an opponent. The head is supposed to be protected; that has been a modern-day rugby crusade, as a concussion-related crisis threatens to engulf the sport,” Foy wrote.
“As it was yet another reckless, high shot by Farrell, there is absolute up-roar, in these islands and far beyond. The vast majority of those who have any awareness of the incident and the aftermath are united in believing it was an open-and-shut case.
“A serial offender was expected to receive a hefty suspension, but even if someone with a clean record had slammed their shoulder into Taine Basham’s head, a sanction would have been expected.”
He added: “What a mess. The game has yet again managed to bring itself into disrepute. With the World Cup just three weeks away, rugby’s entire disciplinary system, its duty-of-care obligations to players and its so-called core values have all been reduced to dust.”
Oliver Brown, writing in the UK Telegraph, said the Rugby Football Union had lost sight of what is right.
“This will be remembered as quite the moment in the legal art of finding mitigation for an act that seems, even in slow motion, inexcusable. But it could yet go down as a bleak day for rugby. The sport is confronting a crisis over brain injuries so profound that Steve Thompson, the 45-year-old former England hooker who struggles to remember his own children’s names due to early-onset dementia, wishes he had never played,” Brown wrote.
“The Rugby Football Union insists it is listening, reiterating just this week a commitment to lower tackle height, with the intention of eliminating up to 4,000 head injuries a year. And yet it has just enlisted a barrister to argue, successfully, that Farrell should be exonerated for smashing into Basham’s head with such force that the Welsh back-rower failed a concussion protocol. What, pray, is the aim here? Is it truly to champion the cause of player welfare? Or is it simply to make sure that good old Owen makes it to Marseille on time?”
Robert Kitson, in the Guardian, worried for the policing of tackle height at the World Cup.
“Theoretically, rugby union is a sport doing everything it can to portray itself as safe and responsible. Except that, in reality, its entire disciplinary system now looks totally unfit for purpose,”wrote Kitson.
“In all sorts of ways Farrell’s lucky escape or otherwise is not the headline news item. Yes, it beggars belief that England’s captain has somehow escaped on a technicality when another ban for a reckless head-high charge seemed certain. Yes, it will be a major relief for both the player and his coaches. But the repercussions go far beyond that. Across the global game, the ripple effect of this verdict will be massive. And not in a good way.
“Because, with the highest-profile Rugby World Cup in history starting in barely three weeks, what price all those stern official messages about lowering tackle height and player welfare? How can the game even pretend to be effectively governed when the most important new innovation in years, the “bunker review” system, has already been crassly undermined?”