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Rugby World Cup: Letter of the law ruins semifinal

Wales captain Sam Warburton receives a red card from Referee Alain Rolland. Photo / Getty Images
Wales captain Sam Warburton receives a red card from Referee Alain Rolland. Photo / Getty Images

When Alain Rolland reached into his pocket in the 18th minute to bring out the red card for Welsh captain Sam Warburton, he was operating to the letter of the IRB's laws, but in doing so ruined a World Cup semifinal.

A game that promised so much turned into a 15 vs 14 battle of attrition, something a booing crowd struggled to accept or appreciate.

As for Warburton, his campaign is likely to be over, with the mandatory appearance in front of the judiciary - a devastating lesson for one of the players of the tournament. He was then submitted to the indignity of a camera thrust in his face for several minutes so the watching world could feel it too. A gut-wrenching moment; he did well to handle it with composure.

Yes, it was a foolish tackle. Yes, wing Vincent Clerc was upended. Yes, the lawbook says there is to be zero-tolerance under a memorandum last year. The memorandum told referees to enforce the law on tip tackles severely, yet confusingly also asked them to make an objective assessment of the overall circumstances of the tackle.

Rolland faced a decision based between three parameters under IRB law.

1. The player is lifted and then forced or "speared" into the ground. A red card should be issued.

2. The lifted player is dropped to the ground from a height with no regard to the player's safety. A red card should be issued.

3. The players is lifted with their head below horizontal and tackled to the ground. At a minimum a yellow card should be issued, with an ejection a possible result depending on the circumstances of the tackle.

So Warburton was always going to get at least a yellow card. However, the laws made it tough for his survival and encouraged Rolland to hunt for red. They say referees should not make their decisions based on what they consider was the intention of the offending player. Instead it should be based on an objective assessment.

Therefore Rolland can't be blamed fully. The IRB laws say there is no room for discretion; no room to question intent. But all for what? Clerc got up fine yet the game disintegrated. Warburton had already started to pull out of the tackle as Clerc was travelling towards the ground. It was not a soft landing but one where Warburton looked to mitigate his actions.

Gatland was gutted: "I feel hollow. The destiny of an opportunity was taken away. I accept Sam lifting him probably warranted a yellow card but he let him go; he didn't drive him into the ground. The thing that surprised me was the referee's instinct. I thought an experienced referee at that stage would have brought his two touchies in to ask them what they thought and have a look at the screen. I just thought that decision ruined the semifinal; we had our chance taken away.

"I'm gutted with the red card because there was no malicious intent," Warburton said. "I went to compete for the ball afterwards but the next thing I knew, I was walking off into the stands."

Gatland suggested putting players on report like rugby league might be the answer.

- Herald on Sunday

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