So how long a ban could Owen Farrell get?

On Saturday, Owen Farrell was red carded for the first time in his rugby union career, following a high tackle that saw Wasps’ full back Charlie Atkinson stretchered off. The involvement of the England captain means that this is a high profile incident but sadly it’s neither the first nor last dangerous high tackle that’s likely to be seen on a rugby pitch. That being the case it’s worth looking at the principles behind the disciplinary process and how it is likely to come to a decision on what length of ban to apply.

The guidelines for citing hearings in the case of a red card are laid down in Regulation 17 of World Rugby’s Handbook and can essentially be boiled down to a five step process:

  1. Establish whether the player accepts that he committed an act of foul play which merited a red card.
  2. Assess the seriousness of the foul play to find an entry point for sanctions.
  3. Identify any off-field aggravating factors that should increase the sanction.
  4. Identify any off-field mitigating factors that should decrease the sanction.
  5. Combine the findings in stages 2 to 4 to identify the appropriate level of sanction to impose.

Stage  1 – Preliminaries

The first role of the Disciplinary Committee (DC) is to formally put the allegation to the player. If they confirm that they had committed the act of foul play and do not seek to argue that the referee’s decision to issue the red card was in error then the DC can move on to the business of assessing the appropriate sanction to apply.

If the player contests that he had committed an act of foul play or that it was serious enough to merit a red card then the DC may review the referee’s decision and the circumstances surrounding it. Regulation 17 reiterates that “the referee’s position as sole judge of fact and law during the Match is unassailable” and it is likely that overwhelming evidence of an egregious error would be required for a DC to overturn a referee’s decision.

In Owen Farrell’s case the available evidence suggest little room for disputing the red card. The DC will have all available camera angles plus reports from the referee and other officials as well as statements from players and staff to refer in the unlikely event of a review of the decision being required. It is more probable that this documentation will be required for the assessment of the ban to apply.

Stage 2 – Entry point

The determination of the seriousness of the Player’s conduct (in order to determine the entry point) is appraised by reference to the following features:

(a) whether the offending was intentional or deliberate;
Possibly the trickiest part of the assessment to make as it requires an element of subjectivity in looking at the player’s intent. Farrell will almost certainly point to the slight reduction in height allied to a change in direction of Atkinson to show that he was not deliberately lining up the Wasps’ player’s head from a long way off. Going against him in this situation are the clear run and unimpeded line of sight he had to the player he was intending to tackle.
(b) whether the offending was reckless, that is the Player knew (or should have known) there was a risk of committing an act of Foul Play;
Categorising the actions as reckless should be more straightforward. Any player in similar position should have been able to realise the risk of approaching a tackle situation at speed (arguably out of control) and without significantly lowering body height.
(c) the gravity of the Player’s actions in relation to the offending;
World Rugby are determined to clamp down on contact with the head and neck area due to the potential for injury and the player’s actions will almost certainly be considered as serious.
(d) the nature of the actions, the manner in which the offence was committed including part of body used (for example, fist, elbow, knee or boot);
It was a tackle situation but contact was made with the head and a swinging arm weas used.
(e) the existence of provocation;
Not relevant in this case.
(f) whether the Player acted in retaliation and the timing of such;
Not relevant in this case.
(g) whether the Player acted in self-defence (that is whether he used a reasonable degree of force in defending himself);
Not relevant in this case.
(h) the effect of the Player’s actions on the victim (for example, extent of injury, removal of victim Player from the game);
Charlie Atkinson was treated on the pitch and had to be replaced. Wasps will be asked for their submissions, so if their player was feeling any after effects these will be noted and included in the assessment.
(i) the effect of the Player’s actions on the Match;
There was no significant escalation of the incident but, as mentioned above, Atkinson was unable to continue playing.
(j) the vulnerability of the victim Player including part of victim’s body involved/affected, position of the victim Player, ability to defend himself;
The Wasps’ player was in a vulnerable position with Farrell coming from his blind side. One of the (many) reasons there has been such a clampdown on contact with the head and neck is because it is very difficult for players to protect these areas.
(k) the level of participation in the offending and level of premeditation;
Farrell was the only one involved in the act of foul play and premeditation is not likely to have been considered a factor in this case given the game situation and the speed at which the incident unfolded.
(l) whether the conduct of the offending Player was completed or amounted to an attempt;
The conduct was completed.
(m) any other feature of the Player’s conduct in relation to or connected with the offending.
Farrell appeared to immediately acknowledge he had got the tackle wrong.

The above list covers all on-field elements relating to the cited incident. Having assessed all of these the DC then categorises the foul play as at the low-end, mid-range or top-end of the scale of seriousness of offending.

Since 2017, offences that result in contact with the head shall result in at least a mid-range entry point, meaning that in this case the low-end entry point is not available to the DC.

The process is at it most opaque here with nothing in the regulations or previous decisions to indicate how these factors are to be weighted and combined by the DC to reach a decision. Guidance must be provided but this is not publicly available.

Looking at the features above it would appear that the most significant factors that would move the entry point up the scale should be intent, effect on the opponent, and premeditation. Farrell’s actions, in common with many other recent high / dangerous tackle incidents, are likely to be categorised as reckless but not premeditated while also having a serious impact on his opponent.

Stage 3 – Aggravation

Aggravating off-field factors include:

(a) the Player’s status generally as an offender of the Laws of the Game;
The player’s disciplinary record in all competitions during his playing career from the age of 18 is considered. Any previous case where the player has been sanctioned by a DC may be taken as an aggravating factor.
Although this is Farrell’s first red card on the field of play he was also banned for 2 weeks for a high tackle in 2016 (an incident which only brought him an on-field yellow card). He has also accrued 7 other yellow cards in 280 top level matches with Saracens and England. The DC is unlikely to see this as a persistent pattern of offending to be taken as an aggravating factor.
(b) the need for a deterrent to combat a pattern of offending in the Game;
With the mandated minimum mid-range entry point for contact with the head already in place as a deterrent it’s unlikely there will be any further add ons here.
(c) any other off-field aggravating factor(s) that the Disciplinary Committee or Judicial Officer considers relevant and appropriate.
A bit of a catch all but rarely (if ever) used in decisions.

Stage 4 – Mitigation

Mitigating off-field factors include the following:

(a) the presence and timing of an acknowledgement of culpability/wrong-doing by the offending Player;
Farrell appeared to acknowledge he had got the tackle wrong immediately. It will be interesting to see whether he contests or accepts the red card decision.
(b) the Player’s disciplinary record and/or good character;
As noted above under aggravation the player had already been suspended for 2 weeks for a high tackle removing one of the main foundations used in mitigation – the ‘clean’ disciplinary record.
(c) the youth and inexperience of the Player;
Not relevant in this case as Farrell is an experienced professional player and English international.
(d) the Player’s conduct prior to and at the hearing;
Unknown. Will he eat the biscuits?
(e) the Player having demonstrated remorse for his conduct to the victim Player including the timing of such remorse;
Farrell apologised to Atkinson before he left the pitch.
(f) any other off-field mitigating factor(s) that the Disciplinary Committee or Judicial Officer considers relevant and appropriate.
A bit of a catch all but rarely (if ever) used in decisions.

The DC cannot apply a greater reduction than 50% of the relevant entry point suspension but may select any figure starting from 0% up to this maximum if appropriate.

Stage 5 – Sanctions

All DCs from affiliated Unions and tournaments are meant to apply World Rugby’s sanctions for foul play. Each area of the Laws has a recommended number of weeks’ suspension for offending based on an entry point.

These were originally created in 2005 and reviewed in 2012 and 2016. The 2012 update was based on the work of an independent group involving former players (including John Smit, Scotland’s own Chris Paterson and that expert on the disciplinary process, Danny Grewcock!), coaches (Didier Retière, Joe Lydon, Robbie Deans), match officials (Ed Morrison, Paddy O’Brien) and members of the media.

Each sanction carries a low, mid and high end entry point which have been determined by the game to be fair and appropriate, with severity depending on the types and seriousness of offending.

After deciding the entry point in Stage 1, the DC must impose the corresponding sanction – contained in Appendix 1 of Regulation 17 which covers 33 different types of offending. For Farrell the relevant section is 9.13:

A player must not tackle an opponent early, late or dangerously. Dangerous tackling includes, but is not limited to, tackling or attempting to tackle an opponent above the line of the shoulders even if the tackle starts below the line of the shoulders.

This carries entry points of: Low-end – 2 weeks; Mid-range – 6 weeks; Top-end – 10+ weeks to a maximum of 52 weeks.

As noted above, given the contact with the head in this incident a mid-range entry point is the minimum required. Unless the DC assesses that, on balance of probabilities, Farrell’s foul play was intentional and premeditated it is unlikely he will receive a top-end entry point. If he did it is vanishingly rare for the level of suspension to be increased above the minimum required at this entry point.

Given he is not a persistent offender (despite his reputation) there are unlikely to be any add ons for for aggravating factors. Due to his previous record, Farrell will almost certainly not receive the full 50% reduction for mitigating factors.

Mid-range entry point – 6 weeks
Aggravating factors – 0 weeks
Mitigating factors – 2 week reduction
Total ban – 4 weeks

(If the DC was to spring a surprise and opt for a higher entry point the sanction would be along the lines of:

Top-end entry point – 10 weeks
Aggravating factors – 0 weeks
Mitigating factors – 3 week reduction
Total ban – 7 weeks)

As a final note the regulations require that any suspension must apply and be served when the player is scheduled to play. As things stand Saracens’ schedule looks like this:

w/c Mon 7/9/20 – Sale (A) and Exeter (H);
w/c Mon 14/9/20 – Leinster (A);
w/c Mon 21/9/20 – potential Heineken Cup semi-final;
w/c Mon 28/9/20 – Bath (H).

With midweek fixtures currently being played Premiership Rugby are announcing bans in terms of matches rather than weeks as is the norm. The punishment also extends to cover full matchday weekends and will therefore ordinarily end on a Monday morning to ensure the sanction covers playing weeks and not simply calendar weeks (whereby offenders might effectively receive different punishments depending on the scheduling of their sides’ fixtures). That being the case, in the event of a 4-week ban, the Sale and Exeter games will cover 50% of Farrell’s suspension with the final fixture he misses either being the HC semi or Saracens’ Premiership swansong.

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