OPINION: Last weekend Jared Payne, formerly of this parish, was sent off in the fifth minute of the Heineken Cup quarterfinal between Ulster and Saracens for taking a man out in the air.
It cost Ulster the match and it could have cost Alex Goode, the victim of the tackle, a great deal more than concussion. The incident caused a furore, but none of this would have happened if we outlawed the daft practice of letting players jump to take a catch.
We don't let them jump into tackles, although I have noticed that some refs have recently started to penalise, incorrectly, the tackler and not the jumper. So why do we let players jump to take a catch and lead with knees and studs to discourage any challenge. It is already hard enough to have a fair contest for the ball with all the illegal screening that goes on.
For those of you who have not seen the challenge that prompted Jerome Garces to give Payne a red card, this is what happened. With 3mins 49secs on the clock, the Ulster first five received the ball on his 22-metre line and launched a high kick.
Payne, playing fullback but in the centre position on the chase, set off in pursuit of a ball coming down a couple of metres in the Saracens half. Payne's eyes never left the ball, except for a split second when he reached his 10-metre line and glanced up. Payne kept going and reached his destination just as fullback Goode was taking the ball at the apex of his jump.
The collision was now inevitable. Goode was tipped and came down heavily on arm and shoulder. The Saracens players all reacted with immediate anger. Payne protested that he was looking at the ball the whole time. The referee considered the video evidence and sent the New Zealander off.
The reaction to all of this has been predictably two-sided. One headline in the Belfast Telegraph read, "Ulster Rugby Fight for Justice over Payne red card."
Mark Anscombe, the Ulster coach and the man who guided New Zealand to the 2011 Junior World Cup, said, "It's unfortunate. It was a collision in the air and did it warrant a red card? I think we're pretty hard done by there. Sometimes I think with these it's the emotion of the injury [that] creates the penalty, and I think at worst it was a yellow card. Jared, the whole time, had his eyes on the ball. I mean, how's that a red card? I think that's the emotion of the injury."
One wonders if Mark Anscombe would feel the same way if his son Gareth Anscombe was lying unconscious on the pitch after being taken out in the air. But most Ulster supporters did feel the same way.
One even went so far as to say, "The ref and indeed all officials should also be taking into consideration that spectators are paying a lot of money for entertainment."
However the majority of players, current and former, who expressed an opinion on Twitter, agreed with the decision. Tom May was a rare "no way, Jerome", but Mike Brown, Austin Healey, Matt Dawson, Ugo Monye all supported the ref.
Martin Bayfield said the man in the air had to be protected. Tom Wood said there was an onus on the player to be aware of what was around him. Rory Lawson tweeted, "Reckless though not malicious, Red correct call."
The general agreement was that Payne was driving without due care and attention. Mark Thomas, the disciplinary officer, agreed and suspended him for two weeks, reduced from three because of Payne's clean disciplinary record and exemplary conduct at the hearing. Thomas called it "a particularly challenging case".
The other consequence is that Goode missed this weekend's crucial premiership match. The Saracens coach, Mark McCall, an Ulsterman would you believe it, said: "We're not going to take any gamble now with Alex, his health is far too important. It's highly unlikely he'll play this weekend. Anybody I've spoken to who has played in the back three and any referees I've spoken to agree it was a red card, whether it was intentional or not. You still have duty of care."
Rugby has a duty of care. Players are using the jump more and more as a means of winning the ball unchallenged and drawing penalties. Ireland conned one out of the ref in last year's test against the All Blacks.
The problem is that the jumper is becoming ever more vulnerable. The ball is being launched ever higher and further away from the back three. Those players are literally taking a running jump, but from so far out, that they are way into the air when they catch the ball.
In rugby league the in-goal kick is a fascinating part of the game and nothing like as dangerous because the attacking and defensive lines are closer together and there is a fair contest for the ball. But in rugby union the aerial bomb is played to all parts of the pitch.
Aussie Rules has ongoing problems with neck injuries. Rugby could be going down the same route unless it does something now.
The Jared Payne affair could be a perfect warning. If rugby brought in a law that decreed you could only jump for the ball in-goal or within five metres of the tryline, it could save someone from suffering a hideous, potentially fatal fall.
At the moment, the high kick chase is an accident waiting to happen.
- Sunday Star Times
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