A friend of mine brightened my ablutions (okay, you don’t need to know that) with a text this morning.
“Good morning,’ he texted, ‘read this quickly in an Irish accent: whale… oil… beef… hooked.”
Go on – you try it; I’ll wager it’ll put a smile on your face. What it means, in colloquial English, is “I’ll be damned!” Or, “Gosh, isn’t that incredibly surprising!”
And what relevance does this have – you might ask – to Super Saturday, the final round of the 6N European Rugby tournament in general, and in particular, to the 43rd minute Freddie Steward red card?
Let me try to explain.
Before the arrival of my friend’s text, I had been sifting through comments and reactions to the match on social media, and I was shocked by what I read.
This particular incident, unfortunate as it was (and I’ll get to that in a bit) dominated analysis of the game in a manner similar to David Beckham’s sending off against Argentina in the ’98 soccer World Cup. As Martin Bayfield once joked, ‘the foul on Diego Simeone was a viscous, viscous tackle. The poor lad fell over… mud on his shorts… one of his socks rolled down, and his Alice band fell out of his hair.’
There are parallels between Beckham and Steward’s fouls; except that the principal difference is that – with regard to the former – Simeone was back on his feet, exhorting the referee to produce red within seconds, whereas Hugo Keenan could play no further part in the match, after failing a Head Injury Assessment (HIA).
For the vast majority of those who posted opinions, this incident dominated the match. Few commented on anything other than the unfairness of the card, and how it ruined England’s chances of causing an upset in Dublin. And, at least for me, this is sad because it reveals two things: a lack of understanding of the laws of the game commensurate with those more familiar with the “round ball” game, and “sour grapes” because England lost… the supposition here being that had Steward not been sent off, England would have won.
This, of course, we will never know. But as an Irishman, I would vastly have preferred Ireland to have completed the game with 15 opponents on the field. There wasn’t much comment about the Jack Willis yellow card, because not even the most cynical Jaco Peyper derider could dispute this one.
If you didn’t watch the game – you probably won’t be reading this – but here are the highlights anyway:
Let’s go back to the Freddie Steward incident. But before so doing, I’ll admit that the time I also considered the decision to be wrong. If you didn’t see the incident, Steward was sent off after his elbow made contact with Hugo Keenan’s head. While running at his opposite number, Keenan was bending to pick up a dropped ball. Steward, the England full back, turned his body to brace for the collision and accidentally contacted the Irishman’s head.
‘In the current climate… you’re upright, you’re into contact,’ explained referee Jaco Peyper to Steward and baffled England skipper Owen Farrell, as reported in The Independent. ‘You have time to turn your shoulder,’ continued Peyper. ‘Direct contact to the head, it’s a high level of danger. No mitigation.’
Many well-known rugby pundits, including Sir Clive Woodward, referred to this as a ‘rugby incident,’ meaning that the absence of intention on Steward’s part outweighed the fact that medical experts considered that Keenan had suffered a blow to the head sufficient to prevent him from re-joining the game.
So, what exactly is a “rugby incident”? Back in ’78, New Zealand prop John Ashworth stamped of the face of Bridgend and Wales fullback, JPR Williams. Williams left the pitch to receive 30 stitches, but still managed to return to the game. And Ashworth’s unquestionably premeditated action went unpunished. Yep… that was a rugby incident back in the Good Old Days. And it was a rugby incident in the manner that the explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia could be deemed a “space exploration incident”.
The game’s gone soft, hasn’t it? No, it hasn’t. Just ask anyone who plays or has played at the top level – and has earned the right to be listened to. And the answer you will receive is that it is more physical and brutal than it has ever been, and measures to reduce direct head contact won’t negatively influence that.
And whilst I have every sympathy for Steward, those who criticised Peyper and his team’s thorough analysis of the incident and interpretation of the rules under what is known as the “dangerous tackle protocol”, are simply wrong. Okay, you could argue that it wasn’t a tackle situation, and that Steward was only trying to protect himself; but under the current laws, contact to the head precipitates the same disciplinary outcome.
On the one hand, there is acknowledgement that incidents and outcomes such as these can spoil the game for the spectator. On the other, as reported on the BBC website, ‘World Rugby, England’s Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union are facing legal action from more than 200 ex-professional players who say they were not sufficiently protected from brain injuries in the sport.’
You can’t have it both ways.
In my opinion, Steward’s sending off was incredibly harsh on a player who had less than 0.6 of a second to react to the situation, but this does not detract from Peyper’s decision being the correct one, under the current laws of the game. If you want to castigate Steward for anything, castigate him for failing to pass to Henry Arundell in the third minute, when he could have jogged over at the right hand corner.
Let’s move on from this.
What the game should be remembered for was England’s ability to bounce back from humiliation at the hands of the French a week ago, and threaten to spoil the party in Dublin by denying Ireland quick ball at the breakdown, and defending as if their lives depended on it.
What the game should also be remembered for was Ireland’s tactical nous in the final quarter, resulting in their ability to plunder the short side, an area where England – a man down – frequently found themselves exposed.
What the game should be remembered for Johnny Sexton’s 6N curtain call at the Aviva, and for overtaking Ronan O’Gara’s haul of 557 6N points… for Dan Cole’s century of caps, and for the sheer magic of the tournament – the best in the world.
And finally, what the game should be remembered for was the image of Andy Farrell, the Irish coach, hugging his son Owen – the England fly-half – shortly after the final whistle.
And to those dissenters and moaners I would say that this is what rugby is about – not about one incident, however much you disagree with it.
The best team in the tournament won the Grand Slam. Ireland go into the Rugby World Cup (RWC) ranked as the top team in the world, and here is the proof, if you find this hard to believe.
England are currently ranked sixth, but they have a decent RWC draw and I wouldn’t bet against Steve Borthwick piloting them to at least the last eight in the tournament.
Let’s just hope that there are no contentious cards to spoil this party and for the poorly informed to moan about.