Rugby World Cup: Players paying high price for high tackles
Rugby World Cup organisers have backed referees to up their game after a rash of post-match suspensions for high tackles, most of which were not fully punished on the pitch.
Mindful of player welfare in an increasingly physical sport, World Rugby has introduced a "high-tackle framework" to decide whether a hit to the head or neck area should be sanctioned.
Referees - with the help of their Television Match Official - must decide three things: was there contact with the head or neck area, was there a high level of danger, and were there any "mitigating factors", such as a player ducking into a tackle.
But so far, it has mainly been a post-match disciplinary committee that has been coming down hard on the players for high hits.
Four players have so far been hauled before the committee - Australia's Reece Hodge, American John Quill and two Samoans, Rey Lee-Lo and Motu Matu'u. They all received three-match bans, their tackles deemed worthy of a red card.
However, only Quill received an on-field red card. The two Samoans saw yellow and Hodge escaped punishment entirely, leading to widespread criticism of the on-field refereeing.
Without directly referencing the Hodge incident, World Rugby issued a rare rebuke of the officiating, saying it had not been "consistently of the standards" expected over the first weekend.
Tournament organiser Alan Gilpin told AFP in an interview that he believed the refereeing had improved since that rebuke.
"As a group themselves - and they are a very exacting group of individuals - they expect their performance to be the best it can possibly be," said Gilpin.
"And I think there was a level of disappointment from them."
"I think we've seen and will continue to see their performances improve," he predicted. "We're expecting them to put in the best possible performances and I think you're going to see that."
'No effective knowledge'
Australian winger Hodge's tackle on Fiji's Peceli Yato has been one of the talking points of the tournament after he escaped on-field action but was later cited and dragged before the disciplinary committee, which decided he should have seen red.
Australia coach Michael Cheika voiced "disappointment" at the Fiji coaching staff for citing Hodge, who said at his hearing that he had "no effective knowledge" of the new framework and "had not been trained on it".
Gilpin said it was "surprising to hear that".
"The high tackle framework obviously not only has been well discussed but actually was developed in conjunction with the top coaches," noted the top tournament organiser.
He also noted that there had been so much talk around the issue that "we would imagine the teams are well-versed in it".
"So I don't think there's any reason why any teams or players here wouldn't be aware of the high-tackle framework and wouldn't be aware of how we are looking to apply it," he concluded, adding that player safety was World Rugby's top priority.
Cheika, in typically outspoken fashion, said Hodge was "nervous" at his hearing and a player in that situation "may not have all the answers at the tip of your tongue".
"No one in the team believes that what Reece did met the red card threshold because of the framework that they have in place," he said, adding that Australia were weighing whether to lodge an appeal.
"I just want to get it out there that we don't need the framework to tell us where to tackle," said Cheika, adding: "I can tell you right now, if there is one bloke World Rugby is not listening to it's me."