Rugby

The Wrap: Why the Owen Farrell fiasco is a good thing for rugby

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Unless you happen to be the Ireland rugby coach and his wife, it seems nothing unites the global rugby community more than Owen Farrell beating a charge at the judiciary.

By now, everyone knows the story; England’s skipper collecting Welshman Taine Basham with a shoulder last weekend, in what appeared to be a cut and dried case of foul play, being cleared of any wrongdoing by a Six Nations judiciary panel, before being sent back there on the appeal of World Rugby.

That second day of reckoning will come tomorrow. And once again, the world of rugby discourse will be chock-full of outrage (if Farrell once again beats the charge), or justice finally served (if the new panel upholds the appeal).

Adding to the drama, Farrell now has company; teammate Billy Vunipola also in the gun for not lowering his sights on Ireland’s Andrew Porter. Specifically different circumstances of course, but another indicator that all is not well with England right now.

This column isn’t another rehash of the rights and (considerable) wrongs of Farrell’s case. Lord knows they’ve been thrashed to death already.

But as bad as the incident was for Basham – the unwitting victim in all of this – it isn’t quite the setback for the movement to make rugby safer than it was originally painted as.

Owen Farrell the England captain looks on during the Summer International match between England and Wales at Twickenham Stadium on August 12, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Owen Farrell the England captain looks on during the Summer International match between England and Wales at Twickenham Stadium on August 12, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The argument goes like this: with the need to protect the head now widely understood and accepted, administrators, coaches, officials, medical staff, players, media, fans and parents are largely aligned.

The substantive battle around understanding the need to trade-off elements of the game for improved safety has already been fought and won, with the ‘game’s gone soft’ brigade, if not yet buried, almost as good as dead.

But effecting meaningful, practical change is glacially slow. Think of rugby as the Titanic, tasked with nimbly dodging and weaving past north-Atlantic icebergs. Just like the ill-fated liner, rugby is too big and cumbersome to manage that kind of thing well.

But unlike the big ship, rugby has some devices at its disposal that, if used effectively, can deliver better outcomes for the sport.

In this case, Farrell’s case serves as a catalyst to bring the safety issue to the forefront, to unite people around a common safety cause. A change agent if you like, capable of bringing about real and meaningful action.

Rugby and other contact sports have reached a point where people have become almost immune to the sheer number of affected players telling similar stories of how their mid-life and later lives have been adversely impacted as a result of head injuries suffered during their careers.

These are important, harrowing stories, every single one of them. They include amateur club players as they do high-profile people like Steve Thompson, whose life-crowning achievement of winning the World Cup is diminished by virtue of him not being able to remember any of it.

But in the way that graphic photos on cigarette packets warning of the health dangers associated with smoking have lost their oomph – a victim of their ubiquity and familiarity – there is a sense that it will take more than a steady stream of players presenting with post-career afflictions, to shift rugby’s concussion dial.

The recent death in New Zealand of Billy Guyton was genuinely shocking, but appears to have offered up little more than the requisite amount of thoughts and prayers, before consigning Guyton to the statistical archives.

When such a catastrophic event, and the death of Siobhan Cattigan in Scotland, can’t trigger immediate, meaningful change, then rugby has reached a difficult, wholly unsatisfactory place.

That is why Owen Farrell matters. And why Grant Williams and Juan Cruz Mallia matter.

Grant Williams of South Africa looks dejected following The Rugby Championship match between the New Zealand All Blacks and South Africa Springboks at Mt Smart Stadium on July 15, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

While the rugby community cares about player safety, people aren’t necessarily understanding of the detailed medical intricacies, nor the what and how of the next steps. Furthermore, they lack the agency to deliver change.

What the rugby community is all over however, like an Akubra on the head of an ex-Randwick hooker, is equity in the determination and delivery of foul play sanctions.

No matter that arguing the toss about whether Farrell should be excused for the mitigating circumstance of another player’s actions causing Basham to drop by millimetres or centimetres or not at all completely misses the point. Or that which party has the cleverest QC, or that Farrell is a recidivist, or that George Moala copped a hefty suspension for something less damaging, all completely miss the point as well.

It is the very existence of this passionate engagement that draws people into, and carries them along with – even if unwittingly – the player safety issue.

When the dust settles, however they might have got there, people have a better understanding that what happened to Basham wasn’t an unlucky, unfortunate ‘rugby incident’, but something completely preventable. And that if other players – heck, even Farrell himself – might be deterred from doing the same thing, fewer players will be hit in the head, and the game will be made safer for all participants.

The same applies with respect to Mallia’s superman act on Williams, three weeks ago. No matter where you sit on the spectrum – from fair charge-down to reckless disregard for the safety of an opponent – all of that emotion-filled argument is simply a necessary part of the process.

Eventually we get to a fatigue point where it becomes understood that no matter the treatment of Mallia – just or unjust – it is the health of Williams and the prevention of similar events happening to other players in the future, that really matters.

As makers and keepers of the laws of rugby, it is incumbent on World Rugby to lead and steer the game through evolution and change. With respect to Farrell, the sheer weight of public outcry, and a desire not to make a mockery of the new, in-match ‘bunker’ system, forced their hand. An appeal was lodged.

And that’s exactly the point. If it wasn’t Farrell but say, Lachie Anderson clattering into Bryce Hegarty, in Perth then, almost certainly, the incident would have been quickly forgotten.

World Rugby may at times be reluctant to set the table, but the rugby community’s reaction to the Farrell incident at least shows that they can be brought to the table.

And no matter the baying mob, it isn’t a desire to see Farrell cop his right whack that counts. Rather it is the cementing in of the principle that rugby can have no place for players – any player – who can’t bend at the waist, keep away from their opponent’s head, and use their arm and shoulder simultaneously to effect a fair tackle.

Owen Farrell, the England captain, sits in the sin bin with team mates Ellis Genge and Freddie Steward after they all received yellow cards during the Summer International match between England and Wales at Twickenham Stadium on August 12, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

There is still much more pressure that can be applied, much more that can be done. The Mallia case was a missed opportunity, another example of how too much ambiguity in the laws pushes too much confusion onto match officials.

As we saw in the chaotic lead-in to the 2019 World Cup, it is too much to ask officials to not only get all of their decisions right, and to be responsible for producing an attractive, enjoyable contest, and be the responsible flagbearers and drivers for improved safety.

A governing body better in tune with rugby’s needs in a changing environment, could and should have stepped in, the very minute Mallia laid Williams out cold. How hard could it have been to decree a change in law preventing players from leaving the ground to effect a charge down?

The game would lose nothing, players like Williams would never have to worry again about being collected by a stray, flying hip, refs wouldn’t be forced into the spotlight on their way to being thrown under a bus. And if that meant that some poor QC had to contemplate taking his kids out of Eton or Harrow, so be it.

An independent judiciary is a must, albeit that this is fertile ground for disconnection to what is really being sought (player protection), and more often a feasting table for QCs to argue the minutiae of things that really should matter a lot less than they do.

World Rugby missing the low-hanging fruit in the case of Mallia is all the more frustrating given that there are genuine grounds for uncertainty when it comes to CTE and the issue of sub-concussive hits.

The growing body of evidence continues to support the notion that rugby and other football codes are in a difficult position when it comes to CTE. Given its cumulative effects, limiting contact time in training sessions is a positive initiative, as is the avoidance of contact in junior rugby.

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Also, we are likely to see soon the implementation of ‘passports’, where the instances of head trauma over a player’s whole career can be logged.

While there is a sense that technology that is better able to better monitor the effects of head contact on the brain is catching up, CTE remains in the ‘proceed with caution’ basket for now.

With respect to CTE specifically, nobody reasonably expects World Rugby to take conclusive action to radically change the game based on the information that is available today.

But it is reasonable to expect the ruling body to act decisively when the game’s processes allow a three-man Australian judicial panel to walk past player safety, on their way to determining a legal outcome for Farrell.

To their credit, that’s what has happened, and that’s why the furore over Owen Farrell is so important. Due process for charged players is important. Just not as important as preventing avoidable head injuries.

We finish this week with an amusing little tale from the world of Twitter/X where, on Friday night, I caught notice of some good-natured ribbing of Eddie Jones in my feed by Newshub NZ’s Ollie Ritchie. Not wanting to miss out on the fun, I jumped in, advising Ollie to “give yourself an uppercut”.

For that little pearl of wisdom I was instantly served with a 12-hour ban by Twitter/X, on the grounds that I was promoting and encouraging another person to commit an act of self-harm!

It really is a funny old world we live in. Luckily, Eddie isn’t on Twitter. If he was, he wouldn’t last five minutes.

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