What is the Bunker?
The rugby world cup (RWC) is underway, with a packed schedule of matches between the world’s best teams. With the RWC has come the roll-out of the Foul Play Review Officer Process, known as the “Bunker”, which seeks to speed up the review of foul play and increase consistency of on-field decisions.
As the pools progress, we’re analysing how the Bunker process is performing and considering how recent decisions match up to the principles of consistency, audience perception, and player safety.
Though the sample size is small, it appears that the jury is still out on whether better, safer, and more intelligible foul play decisions are being reached.
How does the bunker work?
The Bunker enables the refereeing team to refer foul play, which meets the minimum threshold for a yellow card, to the Bunker for review. The Bunker will then decide, over an eight-minute period, whether it should be upgraded to a red card.
Consistency: Romain Taofifenua yellow card
Taofifenua was the third player reviewed by the Bunker system. In France’s win over Uruguay, he was assessed for what appeared to be a no-arms tackle involving head contact against scrum-half Santiago Arata. Such tackles are typically considered to be foul play under World Rugby Law 9.13, which precludes dangerous tackling.
The Bunker determined that given their positions led to a change in height of the tackled player Arata, this was sufficient to provide “mitigation”. This is one of four process factors that the World Rugby Head Contact Process (HCP) considers when assessing dangerous tackles involving head contact.
However, the red card for Owen Farrell’s similar no-arms tackle was not granted any mitigation, despite a similar case being made. The rationale there, taken from another point of HCP guidance, was that a tackle which involved intentional acts of foul play, such as no-arms tackles, cannot have mitigation applied.
Of course, no two incidents are the same. However, in its limited use, there is at least the appearance of inconsistency in the Bunker review of two similar tackles.
Audience perceptions: Afusipa Taumoepeau tackle on Jamie Ritchie
Taumoepeau’s tackle on Ritchie this weekend in Scotland v Tonga perhaps provides the best example of where Bunker decisions have not matched public perceptions.
What appeared to some to be a red card offence for an upright tackle with head contact was deemed by the Bunker to be mitigated by the height of the tackled player.
World Rugby CEO Alan Gilpin stated that “the foul play review officer in the bunker is obviously seeing more angles than television viewers at home or people in the stadium are seeing”.
It appears that the ability to review multiple angles at length over eight minutes may create a disparity between the perception at the time of incident and the decision reached by the Bunker.
Player safety and the limits of the Bunker: Jesse Kriel tackle on Jack Dempsey
Another key element of the Bunker system was highlighted by an upright tackle with head contact made by Kriel on Dempsey in Scotland’s first outing against South Africa, which Scotland coach Gregor Townsend described as “the type of tackle... we want out of the game… upright, high speed and not in control”. This tackle was, however, not one that fell under the Bunker’s purview.
Only decisions referred to the Bunker system can be reviewed and only those incidents which meet the minimum threshold of a yellow card can be referred. This is unlike the Television Match Official (TMO), who operates more as part of the referee team and can draw other officials’ attention to potential acts of foul play, make “live calls” for certain incident types, and have matters formally referred to them.
Rugby Pass – a website owned and operated by World Rugby – published an article which stated that “TMO Ben Whitehouse, who would have been tasked with alerting referee Angus Gardner should foul play have occurred, is understood to have dealt with it live during the match”.
Sports governing bodies, including World Rugby, are under pressure to promote player safety. If it is intended that the Bunker improves player safety in rugby and promotes World Rugby’s Player Welfare strategy of “put[ting] the player first and… rely[ing] on an evidence-based approach”, then World Rugby may wish to consider broadening the Bunker’s use so that more potentially dangerous tackles such as this are within their scope, rather than subject to simply live review alone.
As we reach the sharp end of the group stages and move into the knockout stages of the tournament, the decisions made in the Bunker system (or the fact that they have not been referred there) are likely to be more consequential and subject to increased scrutiny.
World Rugby’s decision to introduce this change shortly before the RWC, after trials in the World Rugby U20 Championship earlier this year, has meant limited time to iron out any teething problems.
There will also be limited time between rounds to adjudicate on decisions made under the new Bunker system: as with other red cards, players receiving reds via the Bunker at the RWC will attend a disciplinary hearing held by a Judicial Committee. The player can contest the awarding of the red and the Committee will determine sanction, such as the number of games for which a player is banned. The Committee’s decision can then be appealed by the player or by World Rugby, as occurred in the Farrell case.
Controversial decisions are inevitable but the hope is that as the new system settles these will be less likely, with the result determined by the team on the pitch, not the one in the Bunker.
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