Freddie Steward sent off against Ireland – but was referee right to punish contact with Hugo Keenan?

Referee Jaco Peyper and Freddie Steward - Freddie Steward sent off against Ireland – but was referee right to dismiss England full-back? - PA/Brian Lawless
Referee Jaco Peyper and Freddie Steward - Freddie Steward sent off against Ireland – but was referee right to dismiss England full-back? - PA/Brian Lawless

Freddie Steward’s red card for England ultimately proved costly in Dublin. He was sent off after making contact with the head of Hugo Keenan, who had stooped to collect a bouncing ball. Steward's arm was tucked by his side and, as he twisted his body away from Keenan, his elbow struck his fellow full-back in the head.

After consultation with the TMO, Jaco Peyper decided a red card was the right outcome.

There certainly did not seem to be any intent whatsoever on the part of Freddie Steward, who was joining the edge of England’s defensive line at speed as Mack Hansen spilled an attempted offload. Of course, this has been the case for countless red cards over recent years. Plenty of players have been sent off without meaning to do harm to an opponent.

Indeed, the collision, on the cusp of half-time at the Aviva Stadium as the Grand Slam-chasing hosts ran a typically intricate backline move, brought to mind a similar coming-together between Guy Porter, Steward’s teammate at Leicester Tigers and England, and Clermont back-rower Fritz Lee in April of last year.

Porter pushed out of the defensive line and inadvertently caused a head clash. At no stage did he even look at Lee, who left the field in a bloody mess. No doubt to the frustration of Steve Borthwick and Kevin Sinfield, the Tigers coaches at the time, Porter would cop a three-week ban that was reduced to two upon the completion of World Rugby’s ‘tackle school’ programme.

What put Steward in a compromising position was how Keenan stooped slightly to regather the bobbling ball following Hansen’s knock-on. Steward was evidently not expecting this and would have relaxed after the fumble naturally. He stayed upright before turning at the last moment to brace for contact.

In doing so, he clattered the Ireland full-back and was always likely to be in trouble when Peyper summoned a replay. The pertinent question was whether Keenan’s late drop should be considered as sufficient mitigation for the red card to be downgraded to a yellow, to a penalty or even for the incident to be categorised as a completely accidental collision.

Peyper and his team of officials did not believe this to be the case and deemed it to be a reckless act constituting a high degree of danger. Upon explaining the situation, the referee seemed to suggest that Steward could have done more to avoid Keenan. Perhaps it is natural to want both teams to keep their full complement of players on the field in such a significant game, but this felt like a rather stringent view, even in the context of the sport’s extended crackdown on head contact.

Sometimes, freak occurrences like this throw up a stark choice for referees: red card or play on. All things considered, though, a penalty and a yellow card would have acknowledged both the danger of the situation – Ireland lost Keenan for the whole game – and the mitigation of a fast-moving scenario.

With that in mind, the outcome of Steward’s inevitable disciplinary hearing, and any sanction that is handed down to him will set a fascinating precedent for the World Cup later this year.

Genge: ‘It was a total accident – I don’t think he can be punished like that’

Ellis Genge argued that Steward should not have been sent off and former captain Will Carling branded the pivotal moment as a “b----- joke”.

Steward, the England full-back, was shown a red card by referee Peyper on the stroke of half-time after crashing into Keenan following a knock-on from Mack Hansen, the Ireland wing. Keenan left the field for a head injury assessment and did not return over the rest of the game.

The hosts, who were leading 10-6 at the time, pulled away to win 29-16 and secure a Grand Slam. Dan Sheehan, their dynamic hooker, scored two tries, with Robbie Henshaw and Rob Herring also crossing the whitewash.

England responded to their 53-10 thrashing at the hands of France with a defiant performance, but have still registered three losses for the third consecutive Six Nations campaign. Afterwards, Genge addressed Steward’s controversial dismissal.

“For me, we play a contact sport,” said the loosehead prop. “I don’t want anyone to get hit in the head and I certainly don’t want anyone chucking elbows and shoulders, but there was absolutely no malice in what Freddie did; no malice whatsoever.

“He didn’t intend to hurt anyone; he’s actually tried to pull out and not hurt the bloke so it was a complete and total accident for me and I don’t think he can be punished like that.

“But a red is a red and we just had to deal with it. [The referee] made his decision, fair play. In a high-pressure game, the ref has to make big calls and he made one.”

Will Carling, the former England captain, was among those to voice his displeasure at the decision on social media, branding Steward’s red card as a “b----- joke” on Twitter. Refusing to use the setback as an excuse for his team’s defeat, Genge suggested that Peyper had been left with little choice given the sport’s efforts to minimise head contact.

“I feel for the ref to a certain degree,” he said. “You have to make a decision and he would probably get hammered by his superiors if he doesn’t make that decision. There’s a lot of stuff going on about head trauma at the moment, so I get it to a certain extent. For me, it’s not a red but I’m not going to make an excuse because I think we had an opportunity to win.

“It happens everywhere” added Genge, the England vice-captain. “I’ve seen a few this year. For me, if there’s no malice and no ill intentions… if you’re stood upright and you smack someone who is carrying the ball with a shoulder to the face then that’s a different story. But that was a freak accident which happened at high speed.

“He [Steward] is probably trying to go for the ball to be honest. The bloke [Keenan] picks it up and Fred actually braces and he runs into his elbow. If he’d hit the floor, it wouldn’t have been a red but, hey, that’s the hand we’re dealt.”

How the world of rugby responded to Steward’s dismissal. . .

Will Carling, the former England captain, was far from impressed with the decision, posting on Twitter:

Austin Healey, who played alongside Carling in the 1997 Five Nations, was a little more forthright in his assessment. “B-------,” he tweeted. “The ball was knocked on he was bracing for impact and turning away… Utter s---- decision”.

Joe Marler was another former England international to have his say. “Ridiculous,” he tweeted following the controversial decision. “Utterly ridiculous. In fact it’s complete and utter b-------”.

Have your say: Was Peyper right to hand Steward a red card, or was the decision too harsh? Get involved in the debate in our comments section