COMMENT: ‘Astounding’ Farrell decision must be reopened by World Rugby


With the eyes of the sporting world set to turn its collective gaze to rugby, many for the first time in four years, the game has already failed its first major test on head contact — and Rugby World Cup 2023 is still more than three weeks away.

Tuesday’s decision to overturn England captain Owen Farrell’s red card for a dangerous tackle on Wales back-rower Taine Basham, from the Test at Twickenham on Saturday truly beggars belief.

If World Rugby is to be taken seriously on its stated promotion of player welfare and its desire to make the game safer at all levels, then the governing body must step in and at least appeal the all-Australian panel’s ruling.

For not only is the game’s credibility at stake, but also its future.

Four years ago at the World Cup in Japan when there was a flurry of yellow and red cards through the pool stage, rugby fans were told that the game had to change. In the lead-up to tournament, World Rugby had released its decision-making framework for high tackles, a process that was then updated again in 2021.

That process has had its issues, no doubt, with head-on-head contact one of the areas that has proved problematic for officials, players and fans to grasp, usually as to what qualifies as “mitigation” and the different kinds of tackles or collisions that rugby can throw up, the “charge-down” from Pumas fullback Juan Cruz Mallia a recent case in point.

But Farrell’s tackle on Saturday afternoon was so clear cut — no matter what the disciplinary panel of Adam Casselden SC [chair], John Langford and David Croft might have ruled — that it is unfathomable that he could be cleared to play against Ireland this weekend.

And that’s even before you consider Farrell’s clear history of dangerous tackles, which included a four-week suspension in the most recent season of the English Premiership, a ban that was reduced by a week because the fly-half completed World Rugby’s coaching intervention programme.

What then does Tuesday’s ruling also make of that very coaching intervention programme, other than rendering it completely irrelevant?

“Since its launch in July 2021, more than 100 players have successfully completed the programme which is designed to reduce head contact by incentivising players and coaches to practice tackle technique that carries a statistically lower injury risk, reducing the number of red cards over time,” World Rugby’s explanation of the coaching intervention reads.

It also adds that the: “Programme aims to help reduce head contact by reducing the risk of foul play caused by poor technique.”

It has been widely acknowledged for some time that Farrell’s tackling technique has been dubious, at best, yet Tuesday’s decision has effectively ruled that he has no issue at all.

World Rugby has rightfully stressed that tacklers must bend at the hips, therefore reducing the risk of head-on-head contact and concussion which it says is “four times greater when the tackler is upright.”

But there was no dip at the waist from Farrell and while his defence — and the panel’s decision to downgrade his red card to a yellow — was based on the fact that teammate Jamie George had affected Basham’s path and therefore the England skipper’s line of sight, there was still no sudden drop in bodyheight from the Welshman.

If Farrell had lowered his bodyheight in any way, instead of remaining upright, his right shoulder would likely not have cannoned into Basham’s right cheek, even when factoring in the ruled mitigation of a “and significant change in direction from the ball carrier.”

Farrell also did not attempt to wrap his arms in the tackle.

The astounding decision from the disciplinary panel also comes at a time when England’s Rugby Football Union is trialling a “below-the-waist” tackle height in its community game, one that requires tacklers to even further drop their bodyheight from that required in professional rugby, while at the same time requires ball-carriers to not drop theirs, which goes against decades of coaching advice to “drive low” through contact.

Rugby Australia, New Zealand Rugby and many other Unions are either trialing or investigating a switch to a “below-the-waist” tackle height, too.

The entire decision has, according to leading lobby group Progressive Rugby, made a mockery of World Rugby’s desire to make the sport as safe as is possible, one that currently finds itself engaged in multiple lawsuits brought by players who are suffering the debilitating effects of repeated concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

“Today’s astounding decision to overturn the red given to Owen Farrell for his tackle on Taine Basham has made a mockery of World Rugby’s claim that player welfare is the game’s number one priority,” Professor John Fairclough for Progressive Rugby said.

“Additionally, despite protestations in the judgement to the contrary, it has critically undermined the newly introduced bunker process before a global tournament and eroded confidence in the game’s judicial process which is meant to help protect those playing the game.”

The referee of Saturday’s match, Georgian Nika Amashukeli, handled the situation superbly, utilizing the trial bunker system whereby the Television Match Official can upgrade a yellow card to a red once it is sent for an off-field review.

Fans have asked for the TMO process to be sped up and the bunker review system seeks to do just that.

But both Amushkeli and the TMO have been made to look like fools by the decision of the independent disciplinary panel, two of whom will be charged with making further decisions when the Rugby World Cup kicks off in France next month.

World Rugby must therefore step in and appeal the decision, just as it did when former Wallabies captain James Horwill was cited for stomping during the first Test against the British & Irish Lions in 2013.

While Horwill was cleared for a second time, it demonstrated that the game’s global stewards felt strongly enough that the incident required a second independent hearing at the very least.

That was a whole 10 years ago, when some of the tackles that nowadays received yellow and red cards, and multi-week suspensions, would have only garnered a passing glance or instead been applauded for their physicality and impact.

World Rugby risks complete embarrassment if it does not at least reopen Farrell’s case, a decision to back the findings of the disciplinary panel as they stand would undermine everything it has said and done in the past four years.

It would also cast a deep dark shadow over Rugby World Cup 2023 before it has even begun, leaving players, officials and most importantly, the fans, as confused as ever, both in terms of how incidents like Farrell’s should be judged and whether the game itself will be safe to play for the generations that follow.