Owen Farrell is free to direct England’s challenge against New Zealand after escaping any disciplinary action for his controversial tackle against South Africa.
World Rugby has confirmed there is no citing arising from the 12-11 victory at Twickenham on Saturday, clearing stand-off Farrell to face the All Blacks this weekend.
Farrell stopped Andre Esterhuizen with a shoulder-led tackle to the chest without wrapping an arm around the Springboks centre, but Australian referee Angus Gardner declined to award a kickable penalty. It took place in extra-time and had Gardner acted, South Africa would have been given a last-gasp opportunity to win the opening Quilter International.
Citing commissioner Keith Brown had until 24 hours after the final whistle to trigger disciplinary action, but decided the challenge did not meet the required threshold of being a red-card offence.
England will be relieved to have available a player described by Eddie Jones as the team’s “spiritual leader”, but the incident has polarised opinion as the sport continues to tie itself in knots over its crackdown on dangerous tackles.
World Rugby has instructed officials to punish such offences severely in a bid to reduce the number of head injuries, but a lack of consistency is undermining the process.
South Africa’s management were furious at Gardner’s failure to act, their coach Rassie Erasmus praising the challenge at the post-match press conference in an answer laced with sarcasm.
Jonathan Kaplan, a former international referee from South Africa declared Gardner made the wrong decision, adding that Farrell’s “arm wrapping around is an afterthought”. Farrell himself insisted there was no case to answer, however.
“It went to the touch judge, he said ‘check’ and then it all slows down. Sometimes you can take what you want from it,” Farrell said. “If you watch that at full speed, he has a big run-up on me and we both bounce off each other and end up on the floor.
“It’s hard to wrap your arms around when you’re both hitting each other at that much force, but I tried to.”
England wing Chris Ashton felt the decision could have gone either way, Jones, pictured inset, had “no idea” if his co-captain would face subsequent disciplinary action, while Ben Te’o described the tackle as legitimate. “It was a legal hit. Sometimes when a big shot is made on the chest, the head whips back,” Te’o said.
“It can look bad in real time, but when you slow it down it’s a chest shot. He had his arm to wrap, so it was a legal hit.”
Apart from the late drama, Farrell was an inspirational presence who propelled England to victory through force of will as a remarkable defensive performance morphed into a series of frantic attacks.
It was Farrell’s kick in the 73rd minute that sealed the win. His counterpart Handre Pollard had a chance to regain the lead for South Africa four minutes from the end but his shot glanced off the right post.
The visitors scored the only try through Sibusiso Nkosi but an 8-6 half-time lead didn’t reflect their total dominance over an England side who did not touch the ball inside the Springboks’ 22 during the entire opening period.
Two Farrell penalties kept England in touch before a long-range Elliot Daly kick gave Jones’ men the lead.
South Africa went back in front through Pollard 12 minutes from the end, but he failed to repeat the feat after Farrell’s last penalty kick.