Every week during the Rugby World Cup, Stuff will dissect the most contentious refereeing decisions from the weekend’s matches.

Analysis: Concussions, courtrooms, and common sense. Three elements that don’t blend smoothly in rugby. Striking a balance between player welfare, minimizing the risk of legal repercussions related to head injuries, and maintaining an engaging, physical, and entertaining sport remains an enormous challenge for the rugby community.

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RWC 2023 Tickets | Rugby World Cup tickets
RWC 2023 Tickets | Rugby World Cup tickets

Throughout this RWC 2023 France, head contact issues have stirred confusion. Fans grapple with the inconsistency in penalties, cards, video referee rulings, and judiciary verdicts. English referee Luke Pearce found himself in a difficult position during Monday’s match between South Africa and Tonga in Marseille (a game ultimately won 49-18 by the Springboks).

While leading 14-3, Springboks winger Makazole Mapimpi embarked on a twisting run near the Tonga try line. When halfback Augustine Pulu brought him down. With a clash of heads between the two players, this tackle was flagged to English referee Luke Pearce by TMO Brett Cronan (Australia).

As per current guidelines, such incidents often lead to yellow cards being swiftly issued, with a potential upgrade to a red card pending further review by the video officials. Which can take up to eight minutes. However, Pearce demonstrated a refreshing dose of common sense when considering the appropriate sanction.

He observed that Mapimpi was initially “falling to his knees,” a crucial detail in his decision-making process.

The Complex Challenge of Head Injuries in Rugby World Cup

This crucial detail influenced his decision to show a yellow card to Augustine Pulu rather than a more severe red card. Demonstrating an understanding of the dynamics of the situation and a willingness to apply the sanction in a measured manner. These instances highlight the ongoing challenge rugby faces in navigating the fine line between player welfare, legal considerations, and maintaining the sport’s dynamic and physical nature.

Referees like Luke Pearce play a pivotal role in making these decisions. Their ability to exercise common sense is a welcome aspect in addressing these complex issues during the Rugby World Cup in France.

“We’re not in high danger, It is foul play as it is head contact. But I don’t feel this is sufficient for a yellow card. Is that what you’re seeing?”

Pearce concludes with a collision which was far from sending either player flying backwards.

“Yeah, no troubles with that, mate.”

To which Cronan replies:

The situation surrounding head injuries and their assessment in rugby can be quite complex. As demonstrated in the recent incident involving referee Luke Pearce and Makazole Mapimpi. Pearce initially assessed the collision between Mapimpi and Augustine Pulu as a “low danger” incident, considering factors such as Mapimpi lowering into the contact and Pulu’s position.

It resulted in a penalty-only offence under World Rugby’s Head Contact Process. However, what added a layer of complexity to the situation was Mapimpi subsequently leaving the field for a head injury assessment (HIA) and failing it. Which meant he couldn’t continue playing. For more about Rugby World Cup Quarter Final 4.

RWC 2023 Tickets | Rugby World Cup tickets
RWC 2023 Tickets | Rugby World Cup tickets

Welfare of player

This raised valid questions about whether an incident can still be considered “low danger” . If it leads to a player being sidelined due to a concussion. These scenarios highlight the ongoing challenges rugby faces in managing head injuries and ensuring player welfare while also maintaining the integrity and competitiveness of the game.

It underscores the importance of continually refining protocols and guidelines to balance safety and the sport’s physical nature. The role of a rugby referee is undoubtedly challenging. Especially in situations where decisions can have significant consequences for players and teams.

Considering recent incidents like the one involving Makazole Mapimpi’s failed HIA after a head collision. There may be room for considering potential law tweaks. One possible adjustment could involve allowing officials to retrospectively issue a card to a player. If a failed HIA results from an incident that was initially deemed low risk.

This would address situations where player safety is ultimately compromised despite the initial assessment. The incident with Tonga fullback Salesi Piutau and Eben Etzebeth’s shoulder/chest contact highlights the evolving interpretation of high tackles and player safety. It emphasizes the importance of player welfare and ensuring that defenders give catchers adequate space to land safely, even in seemingly innocuous incidents.

RWC 2023 Tickets | Rugby World Cup tickets
RWC 2023 Tickets | Rugby World Cup tickets

The example of Tom Curry’s red card and subsequent suspension for a similar incident demonstrates how rugby’s approach to these situations has evolved, with a greater emphasis on enforcing strict safety measures. Referees play a crucial role in enforcing these guidelines and ensuring the integrity of the game while prioritizing player safety. To read more about Rugby World Cup Scenarios: Italy, Fiji, and South Africa.

Collaborative Decision-Making and the Impact on Matches

The incident involving Salesi Piutau and Eben Etzebeth’s shoulder/chest contact during the match put referee Luke Pearce in a difficult position. Initially, Pearce was inclined to announce that the incident warranted. A yellow card and would be sent to the bunker for review. Considering it foul play due to Etzebeth being upright and making direct contact with Piutau’s head.

However, the situation took a turn when Pearce’s assistants, Matthew Carley, and Christophe Ridley, expressed a differing view. They were not convinced that the incident deserved a yellow card. Ultimately, the TMO, Brett Cronan, sided with Pearce’s assistants, leading Pearce to change his decision.

This sequence of events highlights the collaborative nature of officiating in rugby. With the referee and their team working together to make the right calls. In this case, the Springboks may have narrowly avoided a red card for Etzebeth. Which would have resulted in an automatic judiciary hearing.

It underscores the importance of having multiple perspectives and experienced officials to ensure fair and accurate decisions on the field. During the match between the All Blacks and Italy, young New Zealand halfback Cam Roigard had a try taken away from him. With his team leading 56-10, Roigard made a break down the short side and aimed to score another try.

He was tackled near the try line by Italy’s replacement flanker Manuel Zuliani and, in the process of rolling over. He touched the ball to the ground. Referee Matthew Carley and assistant referee Ridley initially ruled it. As a try but consulted TMO Cronan to confirm if it was a double movement.

The laws of rugby

The laws of rugby don’t explicitly define what constitutes a double movement. But Law 8.2 (Scoring – Try) provides some guidance:

RWC 2023 Tickets | Rugby World Cup tickets
RWC 2023 Tickets | Rugby World Cup tickets

(c) A try is scored when an attacking player:

    (c) With the ball is tackled short of the goal line and the player’s momentum carries them in a continuous movement along the ground into the opponents’ in-goal. The player is the first to ground the ball.

    (d) Is tackled near the opponent’s goal line and the player immediately reaches out and grounds the ball.

Roigard’s roll in the tackle can be considered part of his momentum. He didn’t immediately reach out and ground the ball. Instead, he tried to slide the ball further to reach the try line. This action led to the correct decision that it wasn’t a try.

Roigard needed to reach out a bit further forward to place the ball over the try line. Consequently, the decision resulted in a penalty for Italy under Law 14.7 (Tackle – Player responsibilities). As tackled players are required to make the ball immediately available by releasing, passing, or pushing it in any direction except forward.

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