Former referee Rob Debney explains how sanctions for head contact work

Rugby red cards: Sanctions for head contact explained

Ask any player or coach what they would like from a referee and I’m pretty sure the first thing they would all say is ‘consistency’. Whether the referee makes good or bad decisions, a consistent referee, from minute one to minute 80 will at least find favour with most of the players, coaches and spectators.

Beyond this level of consistency, World Rugby are trying to improve the worldwide level of consistency between games so that what happens in one game is refereed the same way in other games around the world. Many people are baffled enough by refereeing decisions, so with more and more rugby on TV these days, having a unified refereeing approach to various scenarios is not only a fairer and more consistent way to apply the laws, but also a safer way too. Player welfare has always been the game’s number one concern and especially concerning any kind of foul play, particularly, on contact with the head.

In 2019, World Rugby released its ‘Decision-making Framework for High Tackles’ which is essentially a flow chart that should allow anyone involved in the game to observe an incident on the  field and come to a consistent and accurate outcome. Referees use processes like this all the time to fairly arbitrate every one of the 2,000+ decisions they make each game but this was the first time a clear, reasonably objective framework on decision-making was released. This particular process is designed specifically for Law 9.11: “Players must not do anything that is reckless or dangerous”.

Rugby red cards

Wayne Barnes shows Val Rapava-Ruskin a red for a forearm shot (Getty Images)

The framework is essentially a process flow for any kind of dangerous contact and allows the referee to use their experience to interpret an incident and allow a degree of mitigation in order to reach a sanction or outcome – which is why I said reasonably objective. The skill and experience of the referee is still allowed within reason as a list of mitigating factors are given enabling the officials to change the outcome depending upon certain circumstances. The framework is also there to allow a coherent discussion between the referee, the assistant referees and any Television Match Official (TMO).

Remember, “a player who commits foul play must be either cautioned or temporarily suspended or sent off” and this framework helps to direct the officials to a consistent and accurate application of law. Let’s also remember, this is about educating the players and sets out a clear reminder of what is acceptable or not, on the field.

So, how does it work?

Rugby red cards

It all starts with a simple question:

  1. Is the incident a high tackle or a shoulder charge?
    a) A shoulder charge is ‘the arm of the shoulder making contact with the ball carrier is behind the tackler’s body or tucked in the sling position at contact’ and;
    b) A high tackle is an illegal tackle causing head contact, where head contact is identified by clear, direct contact to (the ball-carrier’s) head/ neck OR the head visibly moves backwards from the contact point OR the ball carrier requires a HIA.

Depending upon the answer to these questions you then flow through the framework onto the next questions.

  1. Was there contact with the head or neck of the ball-carrier?
  2. What was the degree of danger – high or low?
  3. Are there clear and obvious mitigating factors?

The answer to each of these questions direct the officials through the process to hopefully all arrive at the same outcome. However, you will notice that there are two instances where the subjective opinion of the referee is needed – the ‘degree of danger’ and the use of ‘mitigating factors’.  It is obvious that on occasion there will be some disagreement over the level of danger identified and whether or not the punishment can be mitigated.

Again, World Rugby provide examples and scenarios, e.g. for degree of danger there are things to look for before (the tackler may leave the ground), during (rigid arm or elbow makes contact with ball carrier’s head as part of a swinging motion) or after the tackle (the tackler completes the tackle, as opposed to immediate release/withdrawal).

Mitigating factors must be ‘clear and obvious’ and can only be used to reduce the sanction by one level, e.g. from red card down to yellow. Examples of mitigating factors include:

  1. The tackler makes a definite attempt to change height in an effort to avoid ball carrier’s head
  2. The ball-carrier suddenly drops in height (e.g. trips/falls, dives to score)
  3. The tackler is unsighted prior to contact
  4. ‘Reactionary’ tackle, immediate release
  5. Contact is indirect, i.e. initial contact is with the chest but then slips up…

However, mitigation cannot be used if: “the tackler and ball-carrier are in open space and the tackler has clear line of sight and time before contact”.

To further support the process, World Rugby have also provided more examples of various tackles and scenarios and the sanction they view as appropriate.

Rugby red cards

Whilst not perfect, the framework has certainly improved the level of consistency as recently shown in this year’s Six Nations with the red cards for Peter O’Mahony and Zander Fagerson with the referees on both occasions clearly following the framework. Refereeing is all about having a mental picture of every potential scenario that may occur in a game and visualising yourself correctly applying the outcome. The framework helps in that process facilitating better, faster decision making and a more uniform approach to dangerous play.

The objectivity around the degree of danger and mitigation does allow lawyers and players’ representatives to help argue for lower sanctions at disciplinary hearings and each step of the process can be dissected and argued. Nonetheless, we want to continue a downward trend in the volume of brain injuries. The framework is a clear success for World Rugby and I expect more improvement to be made for players, spectators and referees alike as the game returns to normality in the future.

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