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Rugby World Cup 2019 Disciplinary Review

It’s a pleasure to have Nicks Johnson write a guest piece about the disciplinary process at the Rugby World Cup in Japan. She is an expert in the disciplinary happenings in rugby.

Some have described the Rugby World Cup 2019 (RWC 2019) as the ‘dirtiest tournament in history’[1]. It is true to say that by the end of the pool stages, the competition had accumulated more red cards (seven) than any of the previous tournaments, and added a further one to that tally in the knockout stages. Those eight account for a third of the red cards shown throughout the history of the tournament. Arguably in 2019, the number could have been higher.

A total of fourteen disciplinary hearings took place, with only one citing (Piers Francis) overturned. In the case of Ed Fidow, the Disciplinary Committee declared that the red card was sufficient, having been the result of the player receiving two yellow cards – the first for a technical infringement and the second for a minor act of foul play, which only merited a card due to Fidow’s actions in preventing a try from being scored.

Pool Stages

RWC Yellow Cards  Red Cards Disciplinary Hearings
including Citings
CCW 
1987 n/a 0 0 n/a
1991 n/a 2 2 n/a
1995 n/a 4 n/a
1999 n/a 4 4 n/a
2003 28  0 0 n/a
2007 35  2 2 n/a
2011 16 1 1 n/a
2015 43 1 19 10
2019 25 7 14 2

In comparison, in 2015, there were a total of nineteen disciplinary hearings, but only one red card, which was a result of the player receiving two yellow cards. As with Fidow, the red card was deemed to be sufficient punishment. One of the disciplinary hearings in 2015 was to deal with a persistent offender who had received two yellow cards and a CCW (Citing Commissioner Warning)[2] during the tournament. The Judicial Officer found that the offending was not such as to require additional sanctions. Only two players were given CCWs in 2019, compared with ten in 2015. Interestingly, in 2019, there were no citings after the pool stages, and only one red card – for Vahaamahina’s moment of madness against Wales. There were three yellow cards, all in quarter final matches.  This is mirrored in the statistics from previous Rugby World Cups, which also show a marked improvement in discipline in the knockout stages. 

Knock out stages

RWC Yellow Cards  Red Cards Disciplinary Hearings
including Citings
CCW 
1987 n/a 2 2 n/a
1991 n/a 0 0 n/a
1995 n/a 0 0 n/a
1999 n/a 0 0 n/a
2003 Split Not Available 0 0 n/a
2007 Split Not Available 0 0 n/a
2011 2 1 1 n/a
2015 6 0 1 0
2019 3 1 1 0

So what has changed during the four year framework? The most obvious answer is the recent introduction of the High Tackle Sanction Framework, and the increasing emphasis on the protection of the head. The framework is described as a ‘systematic tool that guides decision making’[3], with the goal of making decisions that are ‘consistent, accurate, objective’[4]. By following the framework, and noting the clear articulation of the thought process, the decision made by the match officials is significantly more transparent than it was previously – regardless of whether or not spectators agree with that decision. Eight of the disciplinary hearings were in conjunction with Law 9.13 (dangerous tackle). Of these eight, four were the result of red cards, including the John Quill tackle on Owen Farrell, Lavanini’s tackle on Owen Farrell, and Bundee Aki’s tackle on Ulupano Seuteni. It could be argued that the approach adopted by the match officials and disciplinary committees was the primary reason for the lack of red cards and citing during the knock-out stages of the tournament. Whilst that is likely to have been a factor, it is fair to say that historically there have been very few disciplinary hearings beyond the pool stages.

When breaches of Law 9.13 involve contact with the head, the incident is immediately deemed to be at minimum a mid-range offence, with the designated entry point for a ban starting at 6 weeks. None of the offences which occurred during the tournament were deemed to be more serious than this, and with the exception of Lavanini, all received the maximum mitigation of 50%, resulting in 3 match[5] suspensions. Lavanini received a 4 match ban, because despite his contrition, full and frank admission and his good conduct and character, he has a significant disciplinary history. He did qualify for some mitigation because the majority of the history pre-dates 2016, and none of it was in relation to dangerous tackling. He did, however, seem to have a habit of dangerous charging. 

One of the more contentious areas of the disciplinary process was the mitigation of sanctions. For the RWC 2019 only, even if a player did not accept guilt, that is to say that they contested the red card or the citing (as per Reece Hodge), they remained eligible for a 50% reduction in sanction. The Disciplinary Committees have emphasised that this was for the RWC 2019 only, in order to stay consistent, and does not set a wider precedent across the game.

The various reasons given for mitigation include a good disciplinary record and character; good conduct at the hearing; admission of guilt; remorse, and the timing of that remorse; apology and again, the timing of that apology. There is an argument that during a World Cup in particular, sanctions should be on the shorter side because of the loss of opportunity – many players will only have the chance to play in one World Cup, so even a one match ban is a significant sanction. This argument is compounded by the rules surrounding squad size – a replacement player cannot be called up for a banned player, so the squad size is reduced for the duration of the ban. As was widely discussed on social media during the tournament, there is not yet a precedent for the replacement of a front row player – would another player have to be dropped from the squad to make way, as per when a yellow card is shown.

There were no instances of aggravation being added to a ban. There are two potential reasons behind this. Firstly, the entry level for contact with the head is higher than previously, and itself is supposed to act as a deterrent. Secondly, the more common approach now is that the full mitigation is not awarded – full mitigation is a reduction of 50%. The three most pertinent examples are the cases of Paula Ngauamo (Tonga), Guillermo Pujadas (Uruguay) and Sebastien Vahaamahina. Ngauamo was cited for kicking an opponent in the face (Law 9.12) during the match against the USA. He did not attend the hearing and nor did any representatives from the Tongan Rugby Union, although they had retained a lawyer. The written decision states that ‘the conduct of the Player as noted at pages 3 and 9 of the hearing transcript is not that which is expected of a player of his stature’[6]. Compounding that was his poor disciplinary record, so with the offence deemed to be mid-range, carrying a starting ban of 8 weeks, he only received 1 week of mitigation for ‘his early admission of foul play’[7].

Guillermo Pujadas (Uruguay) was cited for spitting in the last moments of the match against Wales. Although Rhys Patchell notified the referee immediately, the match officials had not seen it, so the Welsh Management asked the Citing Commissioner to look review the incident. Spitting is a breach of Law 9.27 – ‘A player must not do anything that is against the spirit of good sportsmanship’[8]. The Disciplinary Committee determined that the offence was mid-range, carrying an 8 week ban, which was only reduced by 25%. The reasons the Committee gave for this were that the Player was entitled to some mitigation due to his admission and his remorse, but stated that they were ‘concerned about his inability to recall specifics of the incident in question which raises issues of his forthrightness in this matter’[9]. They added ‘the earlier disciplinary issue arising from referee dissent or abuse which arose 3 years ago, together with this present incident, strongly indicate the Player has a significant issue with the core rugby value of respect’[10]. This clearly demonstrates that the Disciplinary Process has teeth when required, but also raises the question of what exactly needs to happen for bans to be increased rather than reduced. 

Sebastien Vahaamahina (France) was sent off in the quarter final match against Wales for intentionally elbowing Aaron Wainwright in the jaw, a breach of Law 9.12. This was the only disciplinary hearing where the offence was determined as being top end. This determination was made because Vahaamahina admitted that the action had been intentional; Wainwright was vulnerable, and could neither defend nor protect himself, and there was a substantial risk of serious injury. The Disciplinary Committee ruled that ‘The act was a gratuitous act of foul play and was unnecessary’[11]. The Committee deemed the sanction to be 10 weeks, which was reduced to 6 weeks, a 40% reduction. The Committee did not believe that Vahaamahina was entitled to the full mitigation due to a previous suspension, and because of his age and experience. They did believe that he was entitled to some leniency, primarily because ‘He will be forever remembered as the French Player who probably cost France victory, a burden which the former International players on the Committee considered more significant than contributing to the loss of, say a 6 Nations Wales v France match’[12].

The final point to make regarding sanctions is what matches actually constitute the sanction. In the case of Motu Matu’u (Samoa), the Player was cited for a breach of Law 9.13; the incident in question also resulted in Matu’u failing an HIA. The Disciplinary Committee gave him a three match ban, and  said that the match between Samoa v Scotland should not count as part of the 3 game sanction because ‘following the injuries which the player suffered in the tackle, he was undergoing a head injury assessment and following the graduated return to play protocol’[13]. He was therefore not eligible to play against Scotland and was deemed to be injured. This argument formed one point of the appeal made by Matu’u and the Samoan Union, and was considered and subsequently dismissed by the Appeal Panel. This is an interesting approach, primarily because of the absolute logic at play, but also because it is such a rare occurrence. Indeed, I can find no other examples in recent disciplinary history.

Finally, the one issue which was undoubtedly successfully addressed between the RWC 2015 and RWC 2019, is that of legal representation. In 2015 it became clear that many of the smaller Unions were unable to afford experienced lawyers, putting them at an immediate disadvantage. World Rugby addressed this issue and had a pool of experience sports lawyers who were allocated to the smaller, less wealthy Unions. In some cases, having an experienced lawyer may have made a difference to the entry level of the offence, and subsequently the ban, and to the amount of mitigation given. Without a doubt, it levelled the playing field considerably, and afforded these players the same benefits that players from wealthier Unions enjoy.

NOTE – I wrote a piece during the 2015 Rugby World Cup called “Rugby World Cup Judiciary, Does Your Lawyer Matter?” Thankfully I didn’t have to write a new version for the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Whether or not the Disciplinary Process was a success during RWC 2019 is hard to quantify. Inconsistencies in the Process remain, which can be frustrating for the outsider, but without question there have been many significant improvements since RWC 2015.

References

  1.  ‘The Rugby World Cup naughty list: Dirtiest tournament in history braces for new highs’, Joseph Pearson, 17 October 2019, www.stuff.co.nz
  2. CCW – Citing Commissioner Warning – when an incident does not quite reach the threshold of a red card, but should be noted on the disciplinary file
  3. World Rugby High Tackle Framework
  4. World Rugby High Tackle Framework
  5. Because of the tournament format of the RWC2019, bans are converted from week bans into match bans, so a 3 week ban translates into a 3 match ban. This is because a team may have more than one match scheduled during a week.
  6. 191016 RWC19 Disciplinary Decision Paula Ngauamo (Tonga), page 6
  7. 191016 RWC19 Disciplinary Decision Paula Ngauamo (Tonga), page 7
  8. Laws of the Game Rugby Union, World Rugby, Law 9.27
  9. 191026 RWC19 Disciplinary Decision Guillermo Pujadas (Uruguay), page 6
  10. 191026 RWC19 Disciplinary Decision Guillermo Pujadas (Uruguay), page 6
  11. 191025 RWC19 Disciplinary Decision Sebastien Vahaamahina (France), page 7
  12. 191025 RWC19 Disciplinary Decision Sebastien Vahaamahina (France), page 8
  13. 191002 RWC19 Appeal decision Motu Matu’u (Samoa) page 1
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