Owen Farrell: What does rugby do from here as World Cup approaches and saga sparks debate?

Owen Farrell was sent off for a high tackle in England’s match against Wales and was expected to receive a ban, but the red card was reduced to a yellow by an independent panel; World Rugby appealed the decision after it sparked plenty of debate and he is now banned for four matches

        Owen Farrell: What does rugby do from here as World Cup approaches and saga sparks debate?

The decision to overturn Owen Farrell’s red card has been the subject of fierce debate

Shock reverberated around the world of rugby after England captain Owen Farrell received no ban for a high tackle against Wales and had his red card overturned.

Farrell was sent off during England’s 19-17 victory at Twickenham for a high tackle which saw his shoulder catch Taine Basham in the head.

He appeared before a video disciplinary hearing on August 15 where he had the card overturned due to the mitigating factor that Jamie George had pushed Basham before he was hit causing a “late change in dynamics” that “brought about a sudden and significant change in direction from the ball carrier”.

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This mitigation led the all-Australian panel to a decision that Farrell, who was expected to face a four to six-week suspension, should have received only a yellow card.

The reaction to the decision by the panel was immediate, with the general sentiment being that the decision went against the precedent set on punishments for such tackles.

Indeed, the outcry was so vehement that World Rugby decided to appeal the decision by the independent panel which led to the red card being reinstated and Farrell receiving a four-match ban, meaning he will miss England’s opening two group games of the World Cup.

So, why was there such shock at the original decision? Let’s take a look….

How the panel reached the decision

The following is the Head Contact Process as set out by World Rugby and many believed the contact from Farrell could be classed as a shoulder charge, but if we follow the process from the original decision, that cannot be the case.

World Rugby Head Contact Process as of March 9 2023

1. Has head contact occurred?

Yes – move onto question 2

No – process is outside of Head Contact Process

2. Was there any foul play?

Yes, player at fault – move onto question 3

No – play on

3. What was the degree of danger?

Low – penalty kick

Medium – yellow card, move onto question 4

High – red card, move onto question 4

4. Is there any mitigation?

Yes – yellow card becomes penalty kick OR red card can become yellow

However, mitigation will not apply for intentional or always-illegal acts of foul play

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Farrell will have answered yes to questions one and two but from there, disagreed with classifying the tackle as having a “high degree of danger” due to a mitigating factor, in this case George’s involvement in the tackle changing Basham’s height.

In the ruling, it states: “The player acknowledged that whilst he had committed an act of foul play, he denied that the act was worthy of a red card.”

Therefore, the panel then decided that Farrell’s tackle could be mitigated and was not an “intentional or always-illegal acts of foul play” such as a shoulder charge, leaving many pondering what his act is then being classed as.

After viewing the full written decision, World Rugby considered an appeal to be warranted and it was deemed that Farrell did not attempt to wrap his arms, making the tackle an “always-illegal” act of foul play that could not be mitigated.

So, how were both panels so different in their thinking?

Harsh sanctions for others with no prior form

While Farrell was – before World Rugby’s announcement, at least – was feeling relief that he was available to captain England throughout the World Cup, Tonga centre George Moala was experiencing the exact opposite feeling as he was being handed a 10-week ban for a tip tackle on Canada’s Ben LeSage, ruling him out of the entirety of the tournament.

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While it was very much agreed the tackle by former All Black Moala was worthy of a ban, the harsh sanction in the context of the Farrell decision left a bad taste in many players’ and fans’ mouths judging by the reactions on social media.

“No ban? What a joke,” said former New Zealand player Steven Luatua.

“Take away for everyone playing in the UK community, watching the pro game – ‘if they can do it , you can!’, said Newcastle player Cooper Vuna.

“Tier 2 teams really do get treated differently”, said Scarlets player Sam Louisi.

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It also felt more controversial in the context of both players’ prior records. The tackle by Moala, albeit a bad one, is his first offence, while Farrell is facing his fourth ban for a high tackle and was unable to shave off a week as he did earlier this year by undertaking World Rugby’s tackle school programme.

In January, he received a four-game ban after his shoulder made contact with the head of Gloucester replacement Jack Clement, a punishment then reduced to three.

He also has bans from 2018 and 2020 on his record, of two and five games respectively.

Is player welfare being considered?

Both codes of rugby have over the past few years increased their focus on player welfare, especially on reducing the number of tackles that cause concussions via harsher sanctions on the tackler.

Indeed, any clear contact to the head by a tackler is now punished with a card and the new bunker review system, looking at replays, upgraded Farrell from a yellow to a red card.

With head contacts consistently being discussed, the original decision was seen by many as the antithesis of the policy World Rugby intends to promote of putting “the player first and to rely on an evidence-based approach for all decisions”.

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This “player first” strategy, for many, looked to have been overlooked in this case, leading to outcry from those in the medical profession such as Dr Willie Stewart, a neuropathologist who advises World Rugby.

He posted on social media, before the appeal announcement: “Given @worldrugby stated position that ‘player welfare is the number one priority in the game’ I presume an appeal is pending?”

Progressive Rugby, a player welfare lobby group, also called for the sport’s global governing body to intervene – which they did on August 17.

“World Rugby must emerge from its corporate bubble of stakeholder management and delegated responsibility to bare its teeth,” Progressive Rugby said on social media.

“For it to demonstrate it WON’T stand still on player welfare, that it IS the game’s number one priority and that they won’t tolerate being undermined.”

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Former England women flanker Maggie Alphonsi also called out the decision amid fears that rescinding the red card undermines the bunker review system which is currently being trialled and has yet to be confirmed for the World Cup.

“Baffled by this discussion. It undermines the Review Process and does not do rugby any favours in trying to stamp out dangerous tackles & protecting players,” Alphonsi posted on social media.

“This outcome is only going to blur the lines between red & yellow card decisions and lose trust in the judiciary process.”

With World Rugby appealing and Farrell’s card being reinstated, it is now more widely felt that player welfare is back at the forefront in the decision.

The other view: Edwards backs Farrell

Despite a strong reaction to Farrell’s red card being rescinded, there are those who believe that it was the correct call – including France assistant coach Shaun Edwards – in a sign that there are clear differences of opinion across the rugby sphere.

In his Daily Mail column, Edwards said: “Justice has been served for Owen Farrell. I was one of the few people who thought his red card was wrong. It’s right that he’s been cleared to play.

        Owen Farrell: What does rugby do from here as World Cup approaches and saga sparks debate?

England defence coach Kevin Sinfield says the team have the ability to “do something pretty special” at the Rugby World Cup

“We’re living in a world of slow-motion replays. These frame-by-frame pictures are so different to what players see on the pitch.

“Things happen in a split second. If the ball carrier changes direction late – as we saw with Taine Basham – it’s almost impossible for the tackler to react.

“People have got to start realising that. The post-match disciplinary system has worked and now I wish good luck to Owen moving forwards.”

The debate will rumble on and all eyes will now be on the World Cup to see how similar tackles are dealt with…