Cardiff Blues went down 40-16 to Glasgow Warriors on Friday night at a bitterly cold Scotstoun, with the home side stretching their winning streak to 10 games and retaining their 100% record in the Pro14 this season.
An encounter on the road against the unbeaten league leaders, who happen to run the best attacking game and have the best defence of any, was always going to be an uphill struggle even without taking into account a lengthy injury list and international call-ups.
However, a red card changes the dynamic of any match, and on this occasion it only served to thwart Cardiff Blues after a surprisingly competitive start.
Now what I’m hoping to do is put a case forward as to why Fa’ao Filise’s tackle did not require a red card that ultimately ruined the game as a competitive fixture. You may think ‘it’s gone now so leave it’, or if you have slightly less brain capacity ‘stop whinging’. Let me assure you of one thing though, writing is cheaper than therapy!
In discussions over the weekend regarding the red card, there has been a lot of referring to ‘the directives’. It seems that many people believe that any contact with the head is an automatic red card. Quite simply, that is incorrect.
Here are is the official World Rugby directive on high tackles;
A player is deemed to have made reckless contact during a tackle or attempted tackle or during other phases of the game if in making contact, the player knew or should have known that there was a risk of making contact with the head of an opponent, but did so anyway. This sanction applies even if the tackle starts below the line of the shoulders. This type of contact also applies to grabbing and rolling/ twisting around the head/ neck area even if the contact starts below the line of the shoulders.
Minimum sanction: Yellow card
Maximum sanction: Red card
When making contact with another player during a tackle or attempted tackle or during other phases of the game, if a player makes accidental contact with an opponent’s head, either directly or where the tackle starts below the line of the shoulders, the player MAY be sanctioned. This includes situations where the ball carrier slips into the tackle.
Minimum sanction: Penalty
Essentially, even if the player is deemed to have performed a reckless tackle in the knowledge that they risk making contact with the head it is not an automatic red card.
In other words, the referee has room for manoeuvre in regards to what punishment they hand out.
So now we know that there is more than one possibility for a punishment to be handed out, we need to look at the incident as a whole.
In the context of the game so far, it was the 29th minute and Cardiff Blues were leading 7-13 after a positive start which had seen Macauley Cook cross in the corner and Jarrod Evans go three from three off the kicking tee.
Glasgow had been starting to get a foothold back in the game, increasingly dominating possession and territory, but the visitors were coping well with what was becoming an onslaught.
Dogged defence was disrupting Glasgow’s rhythm well, mixing between trying to hold ball carriers up and targeting the breakdown to prevent the hosts getting quick ball which they are so dangerous from.
Crucially, we were not in any kind of desperate defensive situation that might lead to a dangerous tackle. Not scrambling, not frustrated and not requiring a huge hit to stunt progress.
Fa’ao Filise. The King of Tonga. Cardiff Blues record appearance holder, who has played in more games than most people have had hot dinners.
In 249 games for the club across 12 seasons, Filise has had just six yellow cards, and before Friday night he had not been sent off. Quite incredible for a man as physical and abrasive as Fa’ao is, and for a tighthead prop.
Of those six yellow cards, four were for scrum offences, just one for a high tackle and one for mistaken identity!
Despite being such an imposing figure though, Filise is a real gentleman. A reserved man off the field, he is not overly aggressive or dangerous in any way. It’s just not in his nature.
Right, let’s get into the incident itself. Here is Macauley Cook and Fa’ao Filise’s hit on Glasgow hooker George Turner as it was broadcast in real time;
Innocuous at best. I would wager that 99% of people watching in the ground and at home did not bat an eyelid as Turner carried short from the breakdown and simply lost the ball in contact. I imagine most, like me, were perplexed to see the Scottish international looking decidedly worse for wear.
Television Match Official Andrew McMenemy (SCO)
“Now, I might have to have a referral, just give me a second.”
“What I want to have a look at is the action of blue three. He is the second man into tackle, but it does appear his shoulder makes contact with the head.”
So let’s have a look at what the TMO was watching, using the angles he was given.
Firstly there is the side-on view;
The issue here though is the position of Glasgow loosehead Alex Allan blocking the exact area we want to focus on.
Next up we move to a camera angle high above and behind the defensive line that opens up the whole situation both pre, during and post hit.
The first thing to look at here is the intent of Filise’s tackle;
He is trying, along with Cook, to sandwich Turner in a double hit, latch onto the ball, and either hold the hooker up, drive him back where he came from or rip the ball from his possession. It’s a defensive tactic we had adopted for the previous 30 minutes, and indeed have done all season.
Trouble arises when Cook makes contact with Turner fractionally before Filise does. Although this isn’t unexpected due to the flanker’s better mobility, it makes Fa’ao the tackle assist, rather than co-tackler.
Note Filise’s set body position though. He is already committed to making that hit.
As Cook gets there first instead of Turner being sandwiched, he is knocked sideways by Macca, with contact made on the top of a dipped shoulder.
Subsequently this drives Turner’s head into the pathway of the already committed Filise. Note that in real time this all happens in around one second.
The TMO then moves onto another angle. This one is lower down and looking at the contact from the behind the attackers. This is the most revealing in terms of the position that Turner ends up in;
In slow motion the contact is not pretty, and I’d like to take this opportunity to mention I am not denying that contact was made with the head. This is all focused on whether there were mitigating factors which prove that contact was accidental.
Again we see Turner committed to the carry, and both Cardiff Blues players set to make the joint hit. Filise’s body position is pretty much where he starts the tackle motion, with his feet planted. Yes he could be lower, but his body angle has him aiming for the top of the shoulder.
As Cook makes his tackle we can clearly see that Filise’s shoulder is level with that of Turner’s, however that fractional gap between the two players making their respective hits is the big issue. At this point Fa’ao cannot pull out of his tackle.
With Cook’s tackle Turner’s head position is shifted, not a huge amount, but enough to change the point of contact from Filise’s hit.
Using the spectator in the background with the red hat as a gauge, the head goes minimally down, but crucially to the right, from the point of view of this camera angle. Subsequently Filise’s shoulder drives into Turner’s head and not his shoulder.
Referee Nigel Owens (WAL)
“Have you got an angle for me that does should a lead with the shoulder and not a genuine attempt to tackle?”
Moving away from the area of impact, to whether Fa’ao Filise made an attempt to properly tackle George Turner, i.e use his arms.
Evidence for this can come from the high middle camera, as Allan moves out of the way to reveal Filise’s left arm around the back of Turner.
A point corroborated by the angle from behind the ball carrier.
Filise’s right arm is a point of more argument, and can only be seen from the high camera behind the defensive line.
The issue Filise has is that he cannot wrap his right arm around Turner due to the presence of Cook as the tackler. It is physically impossible for him to get a grip on any part of the Glasgow player.
With his left arm secured around Turner’s back, Filise latches his right arm around Cook in a classic tackle assist manner.
For me this is enough to prove that an attempt at a tackle has been made. Hit with the shoulder, wrap with the arms. A fairly typical incident.
Referee Nigel Owens (WAL)
“There’s no wrap of the arm, there’s contact with the head and to me there is not enough circumstances there to merit anything other than a red card here.”
“You are illegally leading with the shoulder and when you lead like that and it makes contact with the head you have to take the consequences of it. Player safety comes before everything else.”
Unfortunately for Nigel, his attempts to explain his thought process to the TMO, and then Fa’ao Filise, appear to have holes in them.
Owens talks of ‘not enough circumstances to merit anything other than a red’, seemingly rejecting any notion that Macauley Cook’s hit knocks George Turner into Fililse.
The use of ‘illegally leading with the shoulder’ is also open for dissection, as it suggests there is a way to legally lead with the shoulder. The question then is what has Filise done to make his attempt illegal?
He goes to make the hit and wrap the arms, unfortunately Cook takes Turner off course and there is head contact. A penalty? Yes. A yellow card? I could probably agree with. A red card? Very difficult to understand.
Gareth Anscombe, in his first game as captain, didn’t seem to understand it.
The word ‘dumbfounded’ was designed for Richard Hodges at this exact moment.
I don’t want to dwell on this point too long, nor do I want to make it appear as if I agree with the thoughts of many people on this.
However, it is fair to say that there was perhaps more outcry over this decision, and not just from Cardiff Blues fans may I add, because the referee was Nigel Owens.
‘Showtime’ as he is now often referred to, has made a back for himself by elevating his status from professional rugby referee to full-time celebrity. YouTube highlight reels of one-liners, S4C shows and television adverts have all made Owens one of the most recognisable faces in the game.
Unfortunately many of us still prefer our referees seen and not heard. Therefore when a situation like this arises it is an easy jump to make from a poor decision, to a referee wanting to be centre of attention.
There is also the wider issue within the Pro14 of ‘perception’.
Only last season did the league announce a neutral TMO and assistant referee at each game. However on Friday night we had a Welsh referee alongside Scottish assistants and a Scottish TMO.
This then opens up accusations of Welsh referees coming down harsher on the Welsh sides to avoid being labelled biased, and Scottish referees being labelled as helping their fellow SRU employees if decisions favour the Scottish sides.
The league need to be protecting it’s integrity and gaining the trust of fans by sending neutral teams of officials to every game.
Honestly, I don’t expect the red card to be overturned or rescinded in anyway, however I can’t see any reason for there to be a lengthy ban.
It must be difficult to argue for anything more than it being a low end punishment of two weeks. With an excellent disciplinary record over such a long career, the obvious impact on the outcome of Friday’s game, and perhaps a nice pack of biscuits, it might be even lower.
Justic for Fa’ao!!