The Rugby World Cup begins next Friday in France. However, Owen Farrell will be missing from the England squad for the first two pool games after World Rugby successfully appealed against the decision to overturn his red card, which he received for a dangerous tackle against Wales on 12 August.
The Rugby World Cup gives World Rugby a key platform to demonstrate their total commitment to reducing head injuries and to show that the measures introduced to protect players are implemented consistently and changing behaviour on the pitch. However, while the Head Contact Process is clear, Farrell’s case highlights that applying them in such a dynamic environment will continue to cause controversy.
Background to World Rugby’s appeal
World Rugby Law (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 is the law that has returned to the spotlight following English captain Owen Farrell’s no-arms tackle on Taine Basham during the England vs. Wales Autumn Test at Twickenham last month.
Initially, a yellow card was awarded. However, the incident was referred to the Foul Play Review Officer (“FPRO”), with the FPRO deeming that there was a “high degree of danger, no mitigation” with Farrell’s tackle. The sanction was upgraded to a red card. The FPRO is an innovation in advance of the Rugby World Cup which is aimed at improving consistency in on-field decisions. This was the first time an English player had received a red card via this new system.
A hearing was convened to determine whether the FPRO’s decision to upgrade the yellow card against Farrell was correct, as required under the World Rugby Regulations.
The World Rugby Head Contact Process is a law application guideline under law 9.11. Its aim is to ensure the sanctions are applied consistently throughout the game. There are four process questions which must be answered. These are:
- Has head contact occurred?
- Was there any foul play?
- What was the degree of danger?
- Is there any mitigation?
Farrell agreed with the FPRO’s conclusions on the first three questions, but argued mitigating circumstances should result in the red card being reduced to a yellow. His basis was that there was a “late change in the dynamics of the tackle…which in turn resulted in a significant movement, a sudden and significant drop…and a change in direction [from Basham]”.
Original decision of the IJC
The Independent Judicial Committee’s (“IJC”) had to consider whether the FPRO’s decision was incorrect and failed to consider any mitigating factor which would reduce Farrell’s sanction.
In accordance with World Rugby Regulation 17, the IJC was to determine the question on the balance of probabilities, and the reprimanded player has the burden of proof to show that the referee/citing commissioner was incorrect in their decision.
It was then for the IJC to determine whether the acts of foul play warranted Farrell being sent off the pitch. The IJC agreed with Farrell that there were mitigating features present in the current case, namely those Farrell had noted above.
In their judgment, the IJC commented on the evidence which had been considered and concluded that the FPRO was “in error by omitting to consider the late change in dynamics…which brought about a sudden and significant change in direction”. It was held that Farrell’s act of foul play was not intentional or always illegal and therefore was able to depend on this as mitigation. Farrell’s red card was reduced to a yellow.
World Rugby’s appeal
Following significant pressure from the public, media and health experts, an appeal was raised by World Rugby.
The Appeal Committee concluded that the IJC had failed to take into account the conclusion of the FPRO that Farrell had failed to attempt to wrap his opponent in the tackle. This was an important element of the FPRO’s report and it did not feature in the original decision. The Appeal Committee concluded that, as this type of tackle is “always illegal”, no mitigation could be applied.
The ICJ’s decision was overturned, and Farrell’s red card was reinstated, with a four-match ban awarded.
Governing bodies remain under significant pressure to address head injuries and concussions in their sports. With World Rugby continuing to implement changes that aim to put player welfare at the heart of the sport, the successful appeal is further evidence of that approach.
The decision also represented a very important initial test for the FPRO system in advance of the World Cup. Many officials will be relieved to see the original outcome of the review being upheld, as the initial IJC decision could have significantly undermined the new process from the outset.
The next few weeks are likely to see further controversy as referees attempt to enforce very challenging rules within a dynamic, contact sport like rugby.
To find out more about our sports law expertise click here.