Opinion: The laws of the game are still failing the victims of head injuries

Owen Farrell and Manu Tuilagi Credit: Alamy
Owen Farrell and Manu Tuilagi Credit: Alamy

There were two high-profile incidents in the Premiership at the weekend that were not initially punished, which left Planet Rugby considering the viability of the current lawbook.

The first one saw Owen Farrell yet again embroiled in a debate surrounding his tackle technique that should have resulted in him receiving a red card. Unfortunately, there was a communication breakdown between referee Karl Dickson and television match official Claire Hodnett.

After Hodnett had alerted Dickson to the 75th minute incident, the latter wrongly asserted – or at least wrongly stated – that, effectively, too many phases had elapsed for them to return to the dangerous tackle. While he is correct that there is a cut-off point, it only occurs after the game has restarted following a stoppage. Farrell‘s hit was identified by Hodnett during the same passage of play.

Farrell has since been cited

It was an understandable error from Dickson, especially with World Rugby recently tweaking the laws in an attempt to speed up the game and reduce the impact of the TMO. The governing body quite rightly wants to quicken the time it takes to reach decisions and Friday’s incident was perhaps an unintended consequence of that.

World Rugby brought them into effect worldwide from January 1 and that was possibly in the referee’s mind when assessing Farrell’s actions. Saracens‘ playmaker has since been cited and, if sense prevails, will almost certainly receive a ban which keeps him on the sidelines for the next few weeks. If not, then it would raise questions over whether rugby cares about protecting their players.

However, we have full confidence that there will be the correct outcome when the disciplinary hearing takes place on Tuesday evening. While the process was not followed correctly on the field, there is at least a chance a wrong will be righted.

That is of no consolation to Gloucester fans, players and coaches of course, whose chances of winning Friday’s match was directly impacted by that mix-up, but the system in place allows for retrospective punishment in that instance.

And yet it does not apparently cover the incident involving Manu Tuilagi on Sunday, who has escaped a citing, despite taking Harlequins’ Tommaso Allan out of the game in a nasty-looking collision. That is the real frustration when assessing the weekend’s events.

Mistakes happen and the mix-up at Kingsholm was ultimately as a result of human error, and not the fault of the laws laid out by World Rugby, but the case on Sunday was not. Wayne Barnes followed protocols correctly and put it down as a rugby collision. The decision was, in that regard, understandable, with Allan’s height dropping considerably after failing to collect a high ball.

But ultimately Sale‘s Tuilagi connected with the head of the Quins fly-half after not wrapping his arms and it resulted in the pivot lying supine for several minutes. Allan may well be fine in the short-term, but we still don’t quite know how a hit like that will effect him further down the line.

Hit was incredibly reckless

The defence put forward by some was that the centre had attempted to pull out of the tackle having seen Allan fall down, but to us the initial intent was incredibly reckless. There was absolutely no control from the 31-year-old and it basically made it impossible for him to avoid the collision. As the tackler, Tuilagi is responsible for his actions and they were rash in this instance.

It sets a bad precedent that no punishment was handed out, or that Barnes was simply unable to do anything, considering the outcome of the England centre’s hit. It was effectively a shoulder charge into the head of Allan and the playmaker suffered the consequences.

In this instance, the victim of the collision has not been protected well enough. Concussions are inevitable in a contact sport like rugby and there will be times when they will indeed be as a result of a ‘rugby collision’, but this is not one of them.

World Rugby deserves plenty of credit for putting in place guidelines to reduce head injuries, but there still needs to be tweaks if we are going to reduce the number of incidents in the game.

READ MORE: Owen Farrell: England and Saracens playmaker cited for dangerous tackle

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