The final weekend of Pool clashes in the inaugural Rugby Champions Cup was as enthralling as it was exciting with Racing Metro, Leinster, Clermont Auvergne, Bath, Wasps, Saracens and Northampton Saints all joining Toulon, who had booked their quarter final spot the week before, in the last eight. Arguably nowhere else but Coventry’s Ricoh Arena was the rugby at its most intense as Wasps entertained Leinster.
Leinster flew out of the blocks and thanks to tries from Fergus McFadden and Isaac Boss, plus the boots of Ian Madigan and Jimmy Gopperth had given the Irish province had a healthy 20-6 halftime lead. But scores from prop, Matt Mullan, and Number eight, Nathan Hughes, brought the Aviva Premiership side level. Chunky flyhalf, Andy Goode, had a chance to snatch the win but his last gasp drop goal effort drifted wide and both side shared the spoils.
If Goode’s attempt had been accurate Leinster would have no doubt been kicking themselves but they would have been even more upset with French official, Jérôme Garcès and his failure to send off Wasps’ flanker, Ashley Johnson, for a dangerous tackle on Irish wing, Dave Kearney. Garcès decided to hand South African, Johnson, a sin binning for the incident whereas Kearney had to be helped off the paddock and will most likely not be involved in Ireland’s Six Nations campaign.
Not only did this decision cause much ire to Leinster players, coaches and fans alike, those connected with Ulster rugby were utterly dismayed at Garcès’ decision.
Cast your minds back to the 5th April with Ravenhill, (now Kingspan Stadium) Belfast the scene of the quarter final clash between Ulster and Saracens. Ulster outhalf, Paddy Jackson, sends up a Garryowen and Jared Payne gives chase. In the opposite direction, Sarries’ fullback, Alex Goode, leaps into the air to claim the ball and Payne collides with the Saracens man.
Four minutes into the match has only gone and Goode is stretchered off the field and Payne awaits his fate. The referee sends off the Kiwi and Ulster go on to lose by only two points. The man in the middle that day; you guessed it! Jérôme Garcès.
So what was the difference between the Johnson tackle and Payne’s tackle which brought two different decisions from the French official which altered the course of both contests?
Both tackles took place in the air and early in the ties; Johnson after 17 seconds, Payne after four minutes. Both Dave Kearney and Alex Goode had to go off injured. And both tackles, although accidental, were reckless and dangerous. Yet Garcès felt they deserved different sanctions.
How could the referee come to such different decisions?
The root of the problem lies in World Rugby’s law relating to which colour of card a player should be shown if found guilty of foul play. The World Rugby law 10.5 on sanctions informs:
a) “Any player who infringes any part of the Foul Play Law must be admonished, or cautioned and temporarily suspended for a period of ten minutes playing time or sent off.”
The ruling does not explain how to judge the severity of an offence. It is up to the referee to decide whether an action is intentional or not, is dangerous or not, is reckless or not and therefore, whether a sanction is warranted or not. Ergo, the severity of the offence is up to the interpretation of the whistle blower.
The opinion of this writer is that Garcès was incorrect to give Jared Payne a red card last year and two wrongs do not make a right, so credit must be given to the French whistleblower if he felt he made the wrong call last year and was not going to repeat his mistake.
Perhaps to critique the referee is too harsh as it is a tough job and vague laws in this area offer very little assistance to the man in the middle. World Rugby must clear up this lack of clarity around foul play or else many big games will be decided by the referee instead of the players on the field.
However, all that players, coaches and fans want is consistency from their referees and if Garcès were to have stayed true to form, he should have handed Johnson an early bath on Saturday or at least Jared Payne and the province of Ulster are bound to think so!
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