The shifting assessment of Taniela Tupou’s cleanout of Jahrome Brown tells you everything you need to know about rugby’s ongoing wrestle with foul play – and that the breakdown looms as the next likely flashpoint, potentially at the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
Tupou was on Wednesday night cleared of any wrongdoing, the Reds prop now free to face the Waratahs in their Super Rugby Pacific Round 6 match at Suncorp Stadium.
But it wasn’t just the Reds breathing a huge sigh of relief at the dismissal of the charge, so too those across the game who continue to be mystified by some of the decisions being made around the world.
The fact that Tupou’s cleanout on the Brumbies’ Brown was cleared on field by referee Damon Murphy, then deemed to have met the red-card threshold by a SANZAAR citing commissioner, but once again ruled fair game by the same body’s judiciary panel, reflects the utter confusion that fans, in particular, continue to have with some of the game’s laws.
What chance do supporters paying good money to attend games, and those watching on at home, have at understanding the current interpretations of a legal cleanout if those charged with administering the law can’t agree on it themselves?
Supporters are already having enough trouble reconciling themselves with near six-minute stoppages for TMO intervention, like the one we saw at Suncorp Stadium two weeks back.
Taniela Tupou cited for this clean out on Jerome Brown.
Ban possible, but don’t think he should.
Incident was looked at and cleared. Contact directly with shoulder.
Could not have got lower.Beaten to ruck, but hands not on ball. pic.twitter.com/JBU9XIfxhR
— Christy Doran (@ChristypDoran) March 20, 2022
Asked about Tupou’s incident on Wednesday, former Reds and Wallabies fullback Chris Latham echoed the concerns of those who are getting increasingly fed up with some of the game’s rulings and stoppages.
“Yes (it’s frustrating) … I can understand the health and safety aspect, and the mental health of players after football,” he said.
“But from a pure rugby point-of-view, we’re really killing the game with all these stoppages.
“And this one, cleared by video ref, the referee, the commentary team are experts in the game, they cleared it.
“Yet we still want to keep dragging it through.
“It baffles me that we’re talking about this during the week of one of the biggest games of the calendar, sweating on the outcome of one of the most high-profile players in Australia. It’s ridiculous.”
Let’s be straight, no one involved with the game at any level wants to see foul play.
And after a bumpy start at the 2019 World Cup, the crackdown on dangerous tackles has largely been accepted and embraced in both hemispheres.
There will be instances where the officials get it wrong, case in point being the Marika Koroibete sending off in the third Test between the Wallabies and France last year, which for many shows the value of the red-card replacement law trial.
But in the recent instance of England’s Charlie Ewels against Ireland, or Australia’s Rob Valetini against Wales late last year, where both incidents were head-on-head clashes, there is now genuine acceptance that there can be no excuse for poor technique or bodyheight, despite the dangerous contact being unintentional.
If players don’t drop their bodyheight and tackle lower, they will pay a heavy price for any head contact that ensues.
But the breakdown, specifically what represents a legal cleanout, remains an issue, and one that could have a potentially match-shifting influence in France next year.
The problem is that there is far less surface area for players to affect a legal cleanout, compared to when they are tackling a ball-carrier running into the defensive line.
Players attempting to affect a turnover often have their back bent at a 45-degree angle, their head down close to the ball, leaving little body surface for those affecting the cleanout to latch onto.
The neck roll has largely been stamped out of the game, while the ongoing crackdown on side entry into the breakdown will also help prevent those leg injuries where players were being hit from a dangerous angle.
All that is legally left for players to do is to enter the ruck parallel to the touchline, and find at least some surface area that isn’t the head, in doing so wrapping their arms, to affect the legal cleanout.
But that can be easier said than done, potentially resulting in glancing contact with the head which some video angles suggested Tupou’s cleanout may have made.
“The Judicial Committee found that there was no evidence of direct contact made by the player’s shoulder with his opponent’s head,” Nigel Hampton QC, SANZAAR’s Judicial Committee Chairman, said.
“In the event there was any contact with the opponent’s neck it was secondary and of insufficient danger to warrant either a Red or Yellow card.
“The player is therefore free to resume playing.”
In the end, the right result has seemingly been achieved, but the confusion in getting there is the worry.
Who’s to say a similar incident won’t get a different result in the future? Can you imagine the uproar if a key player at next year’s World Cup is rubbed out for a cleanout that mirrors Tupou’s?
Perhaps the answer lies within the breakdown, and cleaning up the lawbook that governs it, which in turn referees interpret differently themselves.
But that won’t happen before the next World Cup. And despite the best efforts of some of the brightest minds in the game, little has changed in an era that is becoming increasingly physical.
Ask Wallabies great David Pocock, a man who has had his head in more rucks than most, and the tackle contest is okay as it is. At least that’s what he told ESPN’s Beyond the Lead podcast.
The key, Pocock said, lies instead with the consistent application of the laws at the breakdown.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what we didn’t get from SANZAAR this week.