When the referee becomes the story
Seventeen minutes into the Rugby World Cup semi-final between Wales and France, referee Alain Rolland made a decision that irrevocably changed the course of rugby history. In so doing, he has been entirely consistent with his previous decisions, may well have interpreted the rules in a way that had been previously agreed by the IRB, but at the same time took away any real chance of the better side progressing to the final of the showpiece tournament in the Rugby Union calendar.
Any question of Rolland being corrupt, or favouring the home country of his father should be dismissed immediately. It really is not the case. His decision was based upon his and the IRB’s interpretation of the laws of the game. "Alain Rolland’s decision to issue a red card was absolutely correct," said referees manager Paddy O’Brien.
This interpretation is entirely and utterly wrong.
It is wrong in the sense that it is not proportionate. It is wrong in the sense that it destroyed this game as a spectacle. And it is wrong in the sense that given a choice of sanctions, Rolland immediately went for the nuclear option.
One of the governing tenets of natural justice is proportionality. While under English law it is not grounds for judicial review (although Lord Diplock indicated that it may be in the future), it is a feature of European law (and many other judicial systems). The principle of proportionality is a political maxim which states that no layer of government should take any action that exceeds that which is necessary to achieve the objective of government (Regardless of intent of objective). It was initially developed in the German legal system.
It is a fundamental principle of European Union law. According to this principle, the EU may only act to exactly the extent that is needed to achieve its objectives, and no further. This principle has underpinned the European Communities since their inception in 1957. In the presently applicable primary law, the principle of proportionality is clearly formulated in the third paragraph of Article 5 of the Treaty establishing the European Community as follows:
Any action by the Community shall not go beyond what is necessary to achieve the objectives of this Treaty. This principle is also explicitly specified in the new Treaty of Lisbon.
So, was the sanction proportional? The immediate outcome of Rolland’s decision was to remove a player from the field of play for what he interpreted as “dangerous play” – the so-called “Tip and dump” tackle. It doesn’t end there, though. The consequences of sending Warburton off, was to deprive Wales of their captain, arguably their best player, and to so handicap the team as to make progress nearly impossible. Moreover, it has handicapped the side for the subsequent match, which is now the 3rd / 4th place playoff. This I would argue is entirely disproportionate to the supposed offence.
The player – Vincent Clerc – is almost certainly guilty of milking the incident, which at worst was an accidental letting go of the player by Warburton while in the process of tackling him. Unquestionably, Warburton lifted the player’s legs, but equally it is clear that Clerc lifted his legs further than Warburton lifted them. Moreover, he suffered no injury or even a minor impediment for the rest of the game. In short, Rolland was duped into issuing a red card for a tip and dump tackle that was no such thing. What actually happened is Warburton grabbed the player by the legs and moved forward; Clerc twisted in his grasp and fell to the side rather than forward. Warburton says he had no malicious intent and the character of the player lends substance to this assertion.
The key fact is that Clerc’s torso was never lifted higher than waist level and that brings into question the interpretation of Paddy O’Brien’s edict that players “dropped from a height” should receive a red card. Quite apart from that being totally wrong in terms of proportionality, the interpretation by Rolland is also wrong, because Clerc was never dropped from any more than his natural height. Had Warburton held on to Clerc and landed with the full force of his weight on the smaller man, there would have been no card, but Warburton would then have to scrabble to his feet to retrieve the ball.
To top all this off, there have been several similar tackles in other games throughout the RWC where such a sanction was not inflicted.
That Rolland immediately went for the so-called nuclear option and in so doing destroyed one of the showpiece games is very revealing of the character of the man. He is a disciplinarian who has frequently resorted to the red card when fans will claim a lesser sanction would have been more appropriate. As such, I believe he is not of the standard required by international rugby. In this instance, a warning, or at the very worst a sin bin should have been the sanction, but in the black and white world of Alain Rolland, this was a red card incident – no question of interpreting it in the context of the game, which was played in a good spirit up to that point. In so doing, he clearly demonstrated that he had no care for the game as spectacle – which is after all the be all and end all of rugby. Without the fans the game dies. Without Alain Rolland we get another referee. It’s time International Rugby was indeed without Alain Rolland, because he has been the story once too often. The IRB should get rid of him and while they are at it, get rid of Paddy “Jobsworth” O’Brien., who has clearly demonstrated that he does not understand this salient fact either.