Aerial Attack Rugby – Israel Folau appeals one match suspension

Aerial Attack Rugby - Israel Folau appeals one match suspension

The onus today, in the hard and fast modern game, is to use the high kick as a weapon. The old up and under has been perfected. Yet, the high risk outcome when using aerial attacking rugby can see players infringe. And for star NSW Waratahs fullback Israel Folau, that see’s him appeal his one match suspension – handed out by World Rugby on Tuesday.

He is just one player in a recent trend of high-profile incidents, that has also seen France’s Benjamin Fall reprimanded for a similar in-the-air episode. Handed a red card during the recent Test series in New Zealand by referee Angus Gardner. Similar incidents and ones where World Rugby have been active to protect the players.

What is the difference were the penalties applied to both players. The players actions and game-strategy was the same method; contesting the ball. Yet one has seen a red card given during the match – subsequently overturned by a judicial review committee. But after last weekend’s Australia v Ireland test, Folau is cited and then suspended for one match.

To discuss the points, Last Word on Rugby’s resident referee Scott MacLean examines the detail – from the view of an official, a rugby fan and also an observer of World Rugby laws and policy.

Aerial Attack Rugby – Israel Folau appeals one match suspension

There is no doubt, Israel Folau has been known for his ability to attack the ball in the air. The main picture shows him dramatically out-jumping an opponent.

So as such; and as is the trend in the sport, high kicks and cross-field kicks are used effectively as an attacking option. But World Rugby have had to counter that, by protecting each set of players who look to ‘contest the ball’ fairly.

In the AUSvIRE incident (see below) it is the specifics and the outcome of the contest, that now see’s sanctions handed out to players such as Israel Folau, Elliot Daly and Jason Emery.

Scott MacLean states “firstly, Folau’s suspension is not solely from the incident that saw him yellow-carded. Rather it is the result of that one, plus an earlier and similar event that again involved O’Mahony. In both instances, after going high Folau has grabbed at the Irishman’s jersey, resulting in the latter landing awkwardly both times.

“The judiciary seems to have taken the view that each was worthy of a yellow card and that is why Folau has received a week’s ban; as the cumulative effect of two cards is equal to a red card threshold [and ban]”.

So as Israel Folau looks to defend his actions, the argument will surround whether both players fairly contested the ball? And Folau and Rugby Australia are set to appeal the sanction.

High risk outcome when contesting the ball

The recent discussion on the wrongs and rights of awarding a yellow or red card, have highlighted an area of the game that is both a player welfare case. But also how the instrument of the law is used.

Scott MacLean continues, “other than the fact both were aerial contests, there’s little comparison in the Fall/Barrett and Folau/O’Mahony incidents.

“There’s no doubt that Fall only had eyes for the ball; the issue there was that he was not in a reasonable position to catch the ball at the time he made contact with Beauden Barrett – compounded by how the All Black playmaker landed.”

“In both instances last Saturday [in Sydney] Folau was in a position to contest, but blotted his copybook method by dragging on his opponent while in the air.”

The citing commissioner; New Zealand’s Michael O’Leary, said Folau had “placed his left hand on O’Mahony’s chest,” which had pulled the flanker “over and he toppled to the ground.”

It will be up to Folau and his defence team to challenge that interpretation, that could either result in the player being cleared, or….he could see further time added to his ban (if the argument only proves a lack of care was used, when leaping for the ball).

World Rugby position on ‘contestable ball’ needs clarity

Scott MacLean is an active member of the Wellington region refereeing group. He has been coached and receives updates from both New Zealand Rugby and from World Rugby, on the directive to protect player welfare.

Rugby is a game where in the past, players have not focussed as much on jumping for the ball while running at speed. So as the size and strength of players has advanced, so too has the height and risk associated with the high ball. If aerial attacking rugby is the be engaged, then the exact laws, interpretations and punishment must be clear.

France see Red - World Rugby call it a 'Yellow Card'
Benjamin Fall of France receives a red card from Referee Angus Gardner during the International Test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and France at Westpac Stadium on June 16, 2018 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

“As we know, Fall’s red card was rescinded by World Rugby after evidence was presented that another player [All Black centre Anton Lienert-Brown] had made contact with the Frenchman that impeded him. That was something missed or not considered in the TMO discussion that resulted in his on-the-field dismissal.

MacLean goes on to say “on that ruling, referee Angus Gardner followed World Rugby’s directive and process to the letter”. The deflection caused by Lienert-Brown changed the dynamic of the attacking players actions – not the outcome. As any viewer could have judged, how Barrett landed was highly dangerous, but the red card was judged to be obtuse. A yellow card might have been the better decision in hindsight, but World Rugby had indicated to all referees to be pro-active. On the footage presented to him at the time, Gardner was right to act.

MacLean summarises that “Folau on the other hand, has been suspended as noted above”. The tactic of interfering with an player in the air was used, and therefore penalized clearly. World Rugby need to demonstrate an awareness of the fair contest, the position of players leading up to that point, and then have a penalty or sanction that is consistent and relative to the intent of both players.


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Look for an update on the Israel Folau hearing outcome, in the comments section below.

“Main photo credit”
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