Published in Gair Rhydd on 13/02/2012.
Football and rugby union don’t enjoy direct comparisons. Rugby traditionalists view dissent towards referees as a trademark of the round ball game, whilst football fans are often scathing in their analysis of Britain’s public school sport. However, in recent weeks the talking points of both sports have become prominent with an ever-increasing proximity.
The art of tackling in both games has been under scrutiny, with potentially dangerous challenges provoking debate on the terraces and in the media.
Wales’ victory was overshadowed, in the eyes of those from Ireland at least, by referee Wayne Barnes’ judgement in regard to two tip-tackles. Whilst Bradley Davies was fortunate to escape more substantial punishment for his off the ball spear tackle on Donnacha Ryan, Stephen Ferris will feel harshly treated to have received the first yellow card of his international career for a tackle on Ian Evans.
These were two tackles at opposite ends of the scale, yet received identical punishment. Davies is perhaps undeserving of the term ‘tackle’ as the ball was nowhere to be seen when the Irish forward was dropped onto his neck. Whilst the letter of the law dictates that Ferris’ tackle was worthy of punishment, there are serious question marks about Barnes’ interpretation if tackles of such contrasting severity are inseparable in the referee’s handling of the game.
It is interpretation that is the key to the debates in both rugby and football. Looking back to his red card in the World Cup, Wales captain Sam Warburton said: “the laws might be a bit harsh because I think the referee should be able to interpret the law depending on the situation.” Warburton rarely gets things wrong, but he is wide of the mark in this regard. Football provides evidence of this.
The rules in football lack clarity. There is no horizontal above which a player must not be rotated and there is no clear instruction as to what tackle requires which punishment. The most common phrase in recent weeks has been ‘two-footed tackle’, the wording of which features at no point in the football rulebook. Where Stuart Attwell found justification for Nenad Milijas' dismissal against Arsenal remains a mystery.
Following Robert Huths' red card against Sunderland, John O'Shea said: “It hasn’t been explained to us explicitly, but you know yourself as a player you run the risk of a red card – some refs might, some refs won’t.” With such a lack of consistency from referees and transparency from the game's governing body, the only assumption is that you can no longer make a hard but fair challenge. If fans and pundits are confused by what is fair, what chance do players have when there is only a split second to make a decision? The hard men of yesteryear such as Ron Harris and Tommy Smith must wonder what has gone wrong.
Semi-final referee Alain Rolland will never be a popular man in Wales, but his decision to dismiss Warburton has set a tone for the management of tip-tackles in rugby. There are clear rules as to what is allowed and referees should be praised for enforcing them.
Wayne Barnes' decision to sin-bin Davies was unnecessarily lenient, but human error will always be possible. If we ask referees to apply context to the rules, rugby union will increase human error to the level that football suffers from.
Say it quietly, but in this instance, rugby fans are right to claim superiority over the round ball game.