After a patchy game at the RDS on Friday night (dull 1st half, entertaining if error-strewn 2nd half) there really has only been one talking point – Fergus McFadden’s challenge on Damien Hoyland in the 78th minute. Majority opinion appears to be the Leinster player was lucky to escape a card of some description, although there are still plenty who would argue there was little or nothing in the tackle. There are other factors to consider though – ineffective communication between the match officials; criticism by some fans of what they perceived as McFadden simulating being injured; and whether a penalty try should have been considered.
The game situation at that point was 30-20 to the home side who already had their BP wrapped up. Edinburgh were showing their willingness to throw the ball about in their own half with 2 BPs there for the taking if they could score another try. McFadden makes a tackle on the Edinburgh 10-metre line and, as the action moves across the field, he drops back to support Rob Kearney in cover positions as Cathal Marsh, Dave Kearney and Ben Te’o step up stop Edinburgh going wide. Noel Reid is the furthest Leinster player from the action in the right wing slot and Eoin Reddan is sweeping across as the play develops.
From the next ruck Hoyland finds a gap on the short side – largely due to most of the Leinster pack only managing a gentle stroll across to cover, leaving a 4 on 2 for Edinburgh. Hoyland eschews the pass and steps back towards the ruck before taking off, leaving Marsh, D. Kearney and Te’o trailing before skinning Reddan. He angles his run away from R. Kearney, knowing Reddan won’t have the pace to live with him and powers past the Irish full back as well.
At this point McFadden is coming across the 22 to make a cover tackle and it’s likely he’s expecting Hoyland to try and take the straightest line to the posts. The wee winger decides to take a big step off his right foot in an attempt to go round the back of McFadden and head on a diagonal towards the corner.McFadden has to step sideways and back up the pitch and this is the point when the tackle / ‘tackle’ takes place.
Replay 1 – Hoyland sitting down slightly, McFadden rising up. Point of impact is Hoyland’s chin and then up – can see his cheek deforming with the collision and his head snapping back.
Replay 2 – clear that McFadden’s upper arm never moves forward and it is his shoulder that leads through the entire collision.
Replay 3 – can see that McFadden starts in a crouched position (his shoulder around level with Hoyland’s chest) but pushes up at the point of contact and continues through – with his right shoulder the highest point of his stance throughout the ‘hit’.
Replay 4 – original footage run in real time
Replay 5 – rerun of Replay 1
The interaction between referee (Marius Mitrea) and TMO (Tim Lowry) after these replays (which Mr. Mitrea watches on the big screen) can be heard over the official comms sets.
Referee: From what I am seeing the Leinster player has his arm out, trying to wrap his arm. Because of the impact he didn’t make it to wrap his arm around, so for me it’s not intentional no arms tackle.
TMO: Yes it’s a no arms tackle, that’s correct.
Referee: So I’m just going to give a penalty for no arms and nothing more.
TMO: That’s fine.
Mr. Mitrea then talks to the captains to explain the decision (with Hoyland in the background and, randomly, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne joining the conference to question (inaudibly) the decision.)
Referee (to captains): His arm is out, he’s trying to tackle him but due to the speed of the impact he didn’t make it so it’s just a penalty okay?
Referee (in response to Hoyland who visually indicates he thought the tackle was high): It wasn’t high and it wasn’t shoulder it was just, didn’t make it.
Foul play and appropriate punishment
It’s worth considering at this point what the law says on dangerous tackles:
10.4 Dangerous play and misconduct(e)Dangerous tackling. A player must not tackle an opponent early, late or dangerously.
A player must not tackle (or try to tackle) an opponent above the line of the shoulders even if the tackle starts below the line of the shoulders. A tackle around the opponent’s neck or head is dangerous play.
In addition much of the current interpretation by officials comes from the “Dangerous tackles (high tackles)” memorandum issued by World Rugby (then the IRB) in May 2011:
The participants at the Medical Conference generally recognised that tackles above the line of the shoulders have the potential to cause serious injury and noted that a trend had emerged whereby players responsible for such tackles were not being suitably sanctioned.
The purpose of this Memorandum is to emphasise that as with tip tackles, they must be dealt with severely by Referees and all those involved in the off-field disciplinary process.
Referees and Citing Commissioners should not make their decisions based on what they consider was the intention of the offending player. Their decision should be based on an objective assessment (as per Law 10.4(e)) of the overall circumstances of the tackle.
Normal protocols for referees with foul play are to start at the highest sanction and work down. It would appear from his conversations that Mr. Mitrea identified it as a no arms tackle but justified moving down the scale from a card on the basis of McFadden’s intent. By doing so he appears to deviate from the memorandum above where decisions should not be based on the intention of the player. If Mr. Mitrea hadn’t provided this mitigation then, having judged it to be a no arms tackle, it is highly likely he would have been compelled to issue a yellow card.
The officials also appear to have erred in not judging that McFadden’s tackle was high. Given the endless minutes lost to replays for the TMO this season it feels churlish to criticize a referee for wanting to come to a quick decision – but in his haste he appears not to have looked closely enough at what was presented on the big screen. The TMO, with a much closer and clearer view, should definitely have been of more assistance here and been able to alert Mr. Mitrea to the fact that McFadden’s tackle had risen up above the line of Hoyland’s shoulders. If this had been the case and the officials had correctly identified that this was a high, no-arms tackle then the starting point for punishment would surely have been a red card and this would only have been reduced to a yellow if some mitigating circumstance could have been identified (eg opponent already falling into the tackle and ending up significantly lower than expected). There do not appear to be any such factors in this case.
There have been many who have been scathing about McFadden staying down and questioned whether that contributed to the apparent low level of the punishment. The way he slumps onto his head and neck doesn’t suggest someone who is feigning injury.
At the time it appeared he got some kind of ‘stinger’ like injury in the collision although interestingly the officials permitted Luke Fitzgerald to return to the pitch to replace McFadden – which must mean he was withdrawn to undertake a Head Injury Assessment. (This has now effectively been confirmed by Leinster who announced that the player had suffered a concussion.)
It was revealed on Sunday that McFadden had been cited for a dangerous tackle during the game against Edinburgh. The hearing will need to establish that an act of foul play took place and that it met the threshold for a red card before a suspension will be imposed and his case will be assessed under Law 10.4(e). This offers the following entry points based on the scale of seriousness of the player’s conduct:
- Dangerous tackling of an Opponent including a tackle or attempted tackle above the line of the shoulders even if the tackle starts below the line of the shoulders. Lower End – 2 weeks Mid-range – 6 weeks Top End – 10+ weeks Maximum Sanction – 52 weeks
Trying to predict the idiosyncracies of disciplinary panels is a fool’s game but decisions at the RWC (in particular Ronaldo Bothma of Namibia and Mihai Macovei of Romania) suggest an entry point of 2 weeks for a dangerous high tackle. In both these cases an additional week was added on as a deterrent to discourage these sorts of tackles (although how much of a deterrent a 1 week suspension will be is open to question!) Of course the additional week is then immediately taken off for good conduct (ie not eating the biscuits) at the hearing. McFadden though may face further difficulties given that his was also a no-arms tackle and he has also used up the clean disciplinary record reduction on his recent visit to the beak in January when he received a 3-week suspension for stamping.
This is what the laws of the game have to say as regards the awarding of a penalty try:
Foul play by the defending team.
The referee awards a penalty try if a try would probably have been scored but for foul play by the defending team.
A player who prevents a try being scored through foul play must either be cautioned and temporarily suspended or sent off.
In game discussions between officials and players (eg Steve Walsh, South Africa v Wales 2014) have confirmed that the approach in situations where it may be considered that foul play has prevented a try is to remove the player who has committed the offence from the equation (the “Beam him up Scotty” methodology). The player does not get a second bite at the cherry and get to replace his illegal act with a theoretical legal one. That being the case in this situation if McFadden is now removed from the picture is it more likely than not that Hoyland has the pace to run the last 22 metres without being caught by Reddan or R. Kearney? Given the speed at which he had already burst past both of them this seems probable.
However from the replays that were made available at the time it is not possible to reach the standard of proof required. Given Hoyland’s move to a diagonal run the officials would have to consider how far back Noel Reid had retreated from his position at the time of the initial break on the nearside touchline around the halfway line. Only once it could be ruled that it was probable that this final defender could not have stopped the Edinburgh player’s charge to the line could the penalty try have been awarded.
Even if they considered the challenge to only be a penalty offence the officials still erred in not even considering the possibility of the penalty try. Although there was some distance to the line there were no more defenders behind McFadden with the only possible impediment to Hoyland scoring (once the Leinster number 14’s contribution has been removed) being a possible cover tackle from Reid – something that could only be confirmed or discounted by further review of the footage. Compare and contrast with a decision given earlier in the season by Ben Whitehouse where the distance from the goal line did not discourage him from reviewing the action to confirm whether a try would probably have been scored: