A replica Mount Fuji, illuminated with the emblems of all twenty participating teams, kicked the Rugby World Cup off in style last Friday in Tokyo. A crowd of 45,745 people, the majority garbed in the red and white of the Cherry Blossoms, were then treated to a Kotaro Matsushima hat-trick, as Japan sunk Russia 30 points to 10.
The entertainment continued throughout Saturday, with Australia fighting back to beat Fiji, Argentina missing a late penalty to lose to France by 2 points and favourites New Zealand putting on a clinical display against South Africa. However, despite this early drama, the focus of the rugby community and beyond has been on the officiating of tackles in these opening games.
By way of background, a flurry of conspicuous high tackle incidents last autumn, including a tackle by England Captain Owen Farrell on South African Andre Esterhuizen, prompted World Rugby to review their high tackle law. In May 2019, World Rugby issued a new decision-making framework for high tackles and released an accompanying video which used Farrell's tackle as an example of a tackle which was mistakenly not penalized.
Due to this framework, and other directives from World Rugby clamping down on dangerous tackles, many in the rugby community predicted a flurry of yellow and red cards for tackle offences in the Rugby World Cup as World Rugby looked to enforce the new rules. Owen Farrell even changed his tackling technique to ensure he was compliant with the framework.
On Saturday morning, during the Australia v Fiji match, the perfect opportunity arose for the new framework to be put into action. Twenty-five minutes into the match, Fiji's Peceli Yato stormed down the left wing and Australia winger Reece Hodge came across to make a covering tackle. However, when making the tackle, Hodge failed to use his arms and made contact with Yato's head. This directly contravenes World Rugby's tackle directives and there were no mitigating circumstances to save Hodge.
However, referee Ben O'Keeffe had not spotted the tackle and he was not advised to review it by his television match official. Hodge escaped punishment altogether. Meanwhile, Yato, who had arguably been Fiji's best player, was forced to leave the field for a concussion assessment.
Subsequently, Reece Hodge has been cited for the tackle by Scottish citing Commissioner John Montgomery and will appear before an independent judicial committee chaired by Nigel Hampton, QC (New Zealand), former international coach Frank Hadden (Scotland) and former referee José Luis Rolandi (Argentina) on Wednesday in Tokyo.
A high profile blunder by the match officials so early in the World Cup is a blow for World Rugby. In real time, it is understandable that the referee did not realize the tackle was a dangerous one; Peceli Yato is a huge man and Reece Hodge was sent sprawling backwards after making the tackle. However, when slowed down, it is clear that Hodge hasn't used his arms in the tackle and has made contact with Yato's head. The match officials had the technology to play the tackle in slow motion from several angles and it is clear the television match official should have asked the referee to review it. Quite simply, they got it wrong.
At least World Rugby has recognized this mistake by citing Hodge. Some may argue such a citing is akin to shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. However, World Rugby has the chance to set a precedent which will crystalize their high tackle directives. As such, I think it likely Hodge will get a ban meaning he will miss Australia's crucial clash with Wales on Sunday.
This will be little consolation to Fiji who were the better side before Yato was forced off and, if Hodge had received a red card for his tackle, Australia may not have been able to fight back with 14 men. Fiji now have an uphill struggle to qualify out of Pool D and it is likely Yato may miss their next fixture against Uruguay on Wednesday.
As a linked aside, World Rugby's use of legal practitioners and judges on their Disciplinary Committee, alongside ex-players, coaches and referees, gives their disciplinary process gravitas and independence. According to World Rugby Regulation 17, all Disciplinary Committees must have a Chairman or Judicial Officer who is a senior legal practitioner of at least seven years standing, or a serving or retired judge, who shall have previous experience in rugby disciplinary proceedings and an in-depth knowledge of the Game. This legal understanding on all Disciplinary Committees ensures World Rugby's Regulations and Directives are given effect and means there is consistency in decisions.
Since publishing this article, World Rugby have castigated the match officials' performances in the opening games of the World Cup in an unprecedented statement. The statement reads "the match officials team recognise that performances were not consistently of the standards set by World Rugby and themselves" but also states World Rugby are confident the officiating will improve moving forward.