Freddie Steward’s red card: why was it shown and what happens now?

England full-back’s challenge on Hugo Keenan, subject to a hearing on Tuesday, could have repercussions at all levels

What happened in the Steward/Keenan incident?

Freddie Steward was sent off for a dangerous tackle just before half-time after colliding with Hugo Keenan. The Ireland full-back had just stooped to gather the loose ball which had been knocked forward by Mack Hansen. Steward’s arm was tucked by his side but as he twisted his body – with both feet briefly leaving the floor – to brace for contact, he struck his opponent’s head with his elbow. Keenan was taken off the pitch and, after failing his head injury assessment, did not return.

What did referee Jaco Peyper do and with what reasoning?

After pausing play because of a head injury he reviewed the incident with the television match official Marius Jonker. Peyper swiftly identified head contact and determined he and Jonker had to consider if the incident was “foul play”. Announcing that Steward “has to take care”, Peyper evidently did so, highlighting the England full-back’s clear line of sight, how he was upright into contact and how he was turning his shoulder. Peyper then determined that there was a high level of danger, that there was no mitigation and decided a red card was warranted. Steward argued his case, stating he braced for impact and “can’t go anywhere else”. Peyper did not take Steward’s plea into account, citing the “current climate” and, though Steward insisted he had only “milliseconds” to adjust, Peyper was adamant he had time to turn his shoulder and issued the red card.

Why was the decision so divisive?

Because it was both a freak incident as well as the kind of thing that can happen in a dynamic collision sport. That may sound contradictory but ultimately it is not typically the sort of incident for which World Rugby’s high-tackle framework is designed and, when putting theory into practice, anomalies such as this will always occasionally happen and always create debate. Those who argue Steward was hard done by tend to ask what else could he have done beyond vanish on the spot; those who agree with Peyper’s decision highlight how Keenan was struck in the head with force by Steward’s elbow and was unable to continue.

What will England and Steward argue at hearing?

Firstly, that this was a “no fault” incident and that Peyper’s decision should have been to play on instead of applying the framework. In that instance they will point to trigger words listed as part of World Rugby’s law application guidelines – that there was a sudden and significant drop in height by the ball-carrier, that the player had no time to readjust, it was an involuntary collision, that there was no leading arm when close to the body and that it was a passive action. If England cannot successfully argue that there was no foul play they must then convince the panel that the degree of danger was not high and/or that it was not highly reckless or intentional for mitigation to be taken into account. They may also point to how Ross Tucker, who helped to formulate World Rugby’s high-tackle framework, expressed his opinion on social media that a red card was not warranted.

If the red is rescinded, what does it mean for the game?

Keenan was concussed by the collision with Steward’s elbow and could not continue, at a time when the sport has millions of eyeballs on it, and you can clearly argue that rescinding the red card sends the wrong message at a time when World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union are facing class-action lawsuits from professional and amateur players who allege a negligence in their failure to protect them. World Rugby’s approach in recent years has been to strictly sanction dangerous tackles in an effort to change player behaviour but it is questionable whether this incident should even be considered a dangerous tackle. It certainly isn’t the type of incident World Rugby is targeting – upright reckless tackles that make contact with the head of which there were better examples in the same match that went unpunished. The great shame is that the sport is so paralysed by its existential crisis that a vastly experienced referee such as Peyper did not feel empowered or emboldened enough to apply common sense and treat the incident as the accidental collision it was. That is not an indictment of Peyper, rather to illustrate how this incident is a microcosm of the crisis facing a sport of which its very nature means head injuries are unavoidable. The panel ought to also consider whether upholding the red card will change behaviour or act as a deterrent. Or to put it another way: if Steward were to find himself in the same situation in the next match he plays, is it realistic to expect a different outcome?

Jaco Peyper sends off England’s Freddie Steward.
Jaco Peyper sends off England’s Freddie Steward. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

Will the law be changed?

The direction of travel is going only one way. The legal tackle height will come down at both professional and amateur level – the RFU’s shambolic handling of its grassroots law change will come to be seen as but a bump in the road in the fullness of time – and World Rugby cannot do anything to the laws that could be interpreted as anything other than zero tolerance over head contact. That said, there is another law trial taking place in Super Rugby whereby a yellow card is awarded and the offending player is put on “report” for incidents that are not cut and dry even after initial replays. A TMO then has eight minutes to review the incident in depth and can instruct the referee to upgrade the yellow card to a 20-minute red-card. That means the offending player cannot return but can be replaced after 20 minutes, while straight red cards can still be shown for serious acts of foul play. This is the latest guise of the 20-minute red card trial in the southern hemisphere but its previous iteration was rejected by World Rugby’s council for a global trial last year. Rejected because ultimately, the northern hemisphere – in which two unions are the subject of lawsuits – has not been keen on the idea, even if the “report” system is likely to be reviewed and considered for further rollout after the World Cup, as per the previous iteration.


Gerard Meagher

The GuardianTramp

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