Spend enough time in the wrong parts of town, and you are bound to run into trouble soon enough. Owen Farrell seems to be finding plenty of it on the pitch, but then, he has never been shy of poking his head down dark alleyways. This time he ran smack into Argentina lock Tomás Lavanini, 6ft 7in tall, 20st heavy, and coming up fast and shoulder-first. Lavanini dipped at the waist as he made the final two strides, as if he was offering a cursory bow, and Farrell reacted by dropping down to brace for the collision. Lavanini’s shoulder hit him square on the jaw. By the time Lavanini had finished trying to wrap his arms around Farrell’s back, the England man was already crumpled up on the floor.
Everything changed then. After talking it though with the television match official, Nigel Owens sent Lavanini off and the heat went out of the game as if someone had switched off the gas. The match, which was beginning to boil over, died right down again. It was a tepid next 60 minutes and Farrell was pretty lukewarm. He missed four kicks at goal in the first half. It was the first time he had done that since September 2012, when he missed four out of five playing for Saracens. Three of these misses came after his collision with Lavanini, which could not but make you wonder whether he was still suffering from the effects of the blow.
Farrell was not given a head-injury assessment, but after the game he said he did not have any symptoms of concussion. “I feel fine,” he said. “Concussion is always a worry but I didn’t really get hit anywhere near the top of my head. My jaw’s a bit sore, but there was no need for an HIA.”
His logic was flawed. You are just as likely to suffer concussion from a blow to the chin as you are to the crown. But Owens, England’s medics, and the independent match doctors all agreed with him that he was fine to play on without any tests.
The worry, though, is that this is the second time Farrell has been hit like this in two games in the space of 10 days. He was smacked by John Quill when England played the USA in Kobe. There have been four straight red cards in this tournament and two of them have been given to players who were trying to knock Farrell’s head off his shoulders.
Throw in the fifth red card, given to the Samoa winger Ed Fidow for two technical offences against Scotland, and there have been as many sent off in the first two weeks of this World Cup as there were in the four tournaments of 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015.
But then, it used to be hard a lot harder to get a red card. The last Argentinian who was sent off in a Test against England, Enrique Pieretto, stamped on Joe Marler’s head, and the one before that was Féderico Mendez, who famously laid out Paul Ackford with a punch to the face at Twickenham.
Times are changing, though, as everyone knows, and even Argentina’s coach, Mario Ledesma, did not complain about Owens’s decision. “It had a big impact because it was early in the game,” Ledesma said, “but I thought it was fair.”
Ledesma must know that Lavanini’s something of a liability. He has been given seven cards in international rugby – five yellow, two red, in 56 Tests – which makes him one of the worst offenders in the game. He got away with a shoulder charge on the Tonga winger David Halaifonua last week. It was a very different tackle, since it was from side-on while Halaifonua was diving for the line, but it cost Tonga a try that could have turned the match and it went unpunished. Tonga’s coach, Toutai Kefu, will probably not appreciate the poetic justice of Lavanini’s being sent off against England a week later.
Farrell has form himself, being on the other side of these collisions plenty of times. In the short video World Rugby made to teach the players and press about the new high-tackle directives, Farrell’s shoulder charge on André Esterhuizen during England’s Test against South Africa last November is one of a handful of tackles they used to illustrate what you are not allowed to do.
Farrell escaped without conceding so much as a penalty for that one, which is one reason why he is so unpopular with so many of everyone else’s fans here. They say he always gets away with it.
Farrell says he has worked hard at changing his tackle technique coming into the tournament. But he still seems to be in the thick of it. At the end of this match, after Luke Cowan‑Dickie had scored a final try, he was caught up in a fight with three Argentina players underneath their posts.
He stayed bickering with them even after the rest of his team had already walked away. It was the second big bust-up of the match, after another pile-on early in the first half when Pablo Matera clobbered Ben Youngs.
“I probably wouldn’t call them fights,” Farrell said, “but there was a lot of that stuff. It’s not something we want to get caught up in, we just want to look after our players, so that’s what we tried to do.”