Fraser Brown: Bunker system is turning the Rugby World Cup into a shambles
The high tackle on Scotland captain Jamie Ritchie on Sunday by the Tonga wing Afusipa Taumoepeau was just that, clearly dangerous, reckless and ended the Scotland captain’s afternoon and potentially his World Cup should he not recover in time for the pool decider against Ireland a week on Saturday.
Taumoepeau was sent for an off-field review to see if his yellow card should be upgraded to red by the Foul Play Review Officer in the ‘Bunker’. The anonymous official had eight minutes to decide and chose to stick with yellow. The reason given was a drop in height by Jamie going into the tackle, so mitigation was applied to the tackler’s actions. Mitigation is there to be applied in situations where there is a clear change in the tackle dynamics immediately prior to the collision. In relation to a change of the ball carrier’s height it relates to a sudden and significant change. This was not the case here. Any change in height from Jamie was marginal, a matter of inches and there was no sudden change just before contact.
The reality is that it was the actions of the tackler - specifically, his technique - which caused the dangerous collision. Rather than looking at ways to mitigate against dangerous tackles because of the actions of the carrier we should first be looking at the technique of the tackler, whether they were legal and whether his actions and skill execution put the ball carrier at significant risk. That’s exactly what we are trying to eradicate from the game. There will always be instances of accidental collisions, where a defender is attempting a legal dominant collision but, in my opinion, this wasn’t the case on Sunday.
Taumoepeau sets himself well, he’s in a good low position where he can make a dominant tackle, perhaps even more than that, probably a thunderous hit on the Scotland captain into his chest, but he drives upwards, propelling his shoulder into Jamie’s chin. It’s his technique that creates the danger, nothing else. It’s clear foul play. A direct hit straight to the head. And I don’t understand how they came to the decision they did in the Bunker. We don’t want to see yellow and red cards every game but this, along with the Johan Deysel’s hit on Antoine Dupont, are the clearest red cards of the tournament. Adding to the frustration around the decision is that we still don’t know who are making the decisions in the ‘Bunker’. World Rugby has chosen to withhold this information to leave us less informed, as well as requesting fewer action replays on TV and in the stadiums, and for the camera angles shown in the Bunker to be kept from supporters.
I like the Bunker concept and I don’t see why there can’t be a situation where the referee gives a red card and the Bunker reviews it and comes back to the ref and says, ‘that should have been a yellow, you can come back on in 10 minutes.’ I don’t understand why it can’t work both ways. Unfortunately, how it is currently being administered is turning the World Cup into a shambles. The lack of consistency and transparency is not only stopping new growth and interest in the sport but is making even the most ardent lifelong rugby fan question the sport's direction. Rugby is a sport based on evasion, find where the space is and attack it, but the physicality of the game is essential and as compelling to watch as the stunning free-flowing attacking rugby we all love. Anyone who watched the Ireland-South Africa game on Saturday night can testify to the awesome intensity and brutality of watching two teams physically go toe-to-toe.
The only way to make the game safer is to change techniques. Most players are not malicious, they do not go out to injure, and I don’t think Taumoepeau intended to do so. I think he went to put in a monstrous hit and his technique let him down. Until we are serious about changing techniques through enforcement and coaching, we will continue to regularly see reckless and dangerous collisions and injuries almost every week. The bottom line is Jamie Ritchie suffered a brain injury as the result of poor tackle technique. Instead of using rugby union’s showpiece event to demonstrate that World Rugby is serious about protecting its players, changing behaviours, and growing the game, they’ve again shown that there’s a big difference between saying the right things and doing the right thing.
Scotland are heading north now to Lille where they need five points against Romania on Saturday to set up a straight shootout with Ireland in Paris and I’m almost certain most of the frontline players won’t play against Romania. The harsh reality of a World Cup is that a lot of the players who go are there for one game. It’s a 33-man squad. Some guys will go and play in every game. Others are there to play only in the match against the weakest team in the pool.
Johnny Matthews has flown in to replace the unlucky Stuart McInally but I'm not sure he’ll start as hooker against Romania. Johnny is uncapped, has just arrived and he’s not been part of the squad all summer. Ewan Ashman struggled a little when he came on against Tonga and I think Scotland may use the Romania game to give Ewan 45-50 minutes so he’s a bit sharper for Ireland, and I’m sure Johnny will come off the bench to win his first cap.
At prop, I think Javan Sebastian will start at tighthead. Loosehead will probably be Jamie Bhatti, with Rory Sutherland on the bench. I think Grant Gilchrist will come back into the second row and Richie Gray will be rested, and the other lock will be either Scott Cummings or Sam Skinner. In the back row you’ve got Hamish Watson and Luke Crosbie, neither of whom have featured yet, and Matt Fagerson who got more game time than would have been planned against Tonga because of Jamie’s head injury. They might even go for Sam at six to give them another lineout option.
Ali Price will come in at nine, Ben Healy will start at 10, probably Cam Redpath at 12, and then 13 will be an interesting decision as to whether Chris Harris gets another run-out. In the back three, I’m sure Ollie Smith will start at full-back and the wing selections should give us an indication of who is likely to start against Ireland the following week. Sometimes you can lose a bit of cohesiveness if you are chucking in 15 players who haven’t played a game for six weeks but the majority of the guys who will start will have been training together as a team for the last four or five weeks. If you look back at the Tonga game, they scored seven tries so on the face of it looks like a good performance but Scotland were really scrappy at times. They will really want to impose their game on Romania and eradicate the mistakes because they failed to convert a lot of opportunities against Tonga.
I’ve been asked how I feel given that I may have been in a position to join the squad had I not been injured but you can’t look at it like that. I’ve been fortunate in the past. My first cap came on the back of a number of injuries to other hookers and I think I was something like 10th choice hooker when I ended up going out to South Africa in 2013 and playing against Italy. You get good breaks and bad breaks and if you dwell too much on it you can lose a bit of perspective. I’ve been incredibly lucky with how many games I’ve played for Scotland. If I hadn’t been injured in certain periods, I might have played a lot more but at the same time I’ve also walked the tightrope with some fairly serious injuries and got back fit.
I’m gutted for Stuart McInally more than anything else. As I wrote last week, I was so pleased that he got the call to join the squad so for him to then injure his neck without playing is desperately unfortunate. He would have started this weekend, led the team out, won his 50th cap and it would have been a brilliant occasion for him. And I also thought that if he had played well, it would have been an opportunity for him to force himself into the selection equation for Ireland because he’s such a quality player and played so well in the summer. So I’m devastated for Stuart. That’s the end of his career. Life’s not fair sometimes and he’ll be pretty upset just now. The other players and management did a presentation for him in the changing room after the Tonga game and it was pretty emotional. Hopefully over the next couple of days he’ll be able to reflect properly on the incredible career he’s had for Edinburgh and particularly for Scotland.
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