"The way rugby is going, I might as well join the NRL next, seeing how they police it. It's a hard decision for the referees, I understand that, I guess I just have to change my technique and the way I run.”
That was the take of Australian centre Samu Kerevi, after he was penalised for fending off the tackle of Wales number 10 Rhys Patchell in the 2019 Rugby World Cup. The decision to penalise Kerevi for his robust ball carry stunned the Wallabies and shocked many fans and pundits alike.
The centre used his arm to protect himself as he went into contact against Patchell, raising his left arm to prevent his head from smashing into the Welshman’s shoulder. The referee, after consulting the video referee, instead decided to penalise Kerevi for using his forearm.
The crackdown on high tackles and hits to the head has officially lost the plot. Supporters, players and coaches no longer know what is legal anymore, or what can and can’t be done on the field regardless of whether it has been a staple of the game for more than a century. The incessant use of the video referee throughout games is making them twice as long, is becoming pedantic and is killing any flow to the contest.
Kerevi admitted after the game: "I just don't want our sport to be soft. I respect the ref's decision, I understand the call but it's a tough one. I have been running like that for my entire career, I don't know what else I can do.
"At the end of the day you've got to understand from a player's point of view. In those milliseconds I've got to move my arm from just running to tucking it down. What do I do if I don't have my arms up? Is his shoulder going to go into my head? How am I to keep myself safe? I might as well avoid the contact altogether and that's just not my game. I'm looking for it every day.”
Australian coach Michael Cheika, a former professional player, supported the 26-year-old. He said he is embarrassed at the confusion the crackdown on high tackles is causing at the World Cup.
“As a rugby player, a former player, I am embarrassed here,” Cheika said. “You have got to look after players, but not to the extreme where you are doing so just for the doctors and lawyers. I do not understand any more. The referees all seem spooked and everyone is worried, except the players. Then it affects everything else on the field.”
The implementation of these new rules has left many baffled. England’s Pier Francis escaped sanction for his big shot in the first minute of the match against USA, but the Wallabies outside-back Reece Hodge has been suspended for three games for his similar action against Fiji. And the constant interruption by the TMO to scrutinise every big tackle has been a huge talking point.
Welsh great Jonathan Davies agreed with Australian captain Michael Hooper’s view that it was Patchell’s poor tackling technique, not Kerevi’s arm, that was at fault. “Well said Hooper,” Davies tweeted.
Former Wallaby Matt Gitea criticised the constant use of the video referee to analyse everything. “What is happening with this game?? All these slow-motion replays are killing our great game... let the boys play,” he tweeted. Ex-England winger Ugo Monye agreed.
There is no doubt that the link with repeated concussions to dementia, as well as the lawsuits in the NFL, has got World Rugby worried. And it should be. A move to reduce the risk of concussions and head knocks should be applauded and encouraged
But at the same time, there needs to be some common sense here. Rugby union is a contact sport. People get hurt playing it. That will never change. It is not a sport for the faint-hearted or timid. You cannot eliminate all risk.
While punishing high tackles and foul play is all well and good, and admirable, the authorities need to be careful they don’t completely ruin the physicality of the sport, the brutality that draws people in.
Tackling is not an exact science. Anyone who has pulled off a tackle, or run a ball into contact at any level, knows any number of things can go wrong in that process. Players know it, coaches know it, fans know it. When you have bodies and limbs moving in quick motion, things happen.
A key component of rugby is power, strength and using that to dominate your opponent. Take away that element, like Kerevi using his power to run at and over Patchell, and you might as well get rid of the sport altogether.