It seems like another generation, but it is not quite a year since the World Cup in Japan kicked off. Owen Farrell’s red card last Saturday for a dangerous tackle during Saracens’ home defeat to Wasps that left Charlie Atkinson dazed and unable to carry on was the only option for the referee because of the crackdown on high challenges during the tournament.
The World Cup was a round old when the organisers issued a statement expressing disappointment at the leniency shown by match officials to the perpetrators of high tackles. A rash of red cards followed, two for wild challenges on Farrell, and the zero-tolerance approach eventually had its intended effect.
The message from World Rugby was clear as it looked to tackle the issue of concussion. A challenge that led to contact with an opponent’s head merited a red card, no matter if it was accidental rather than intentional, unless there were mitigating circumstances, such as a ball-carrier ducking low at the last moment.
It meant there was consistency and players aware that if they struck an opponent on the head, they would be off. Farrell knew from the moment he made contact with Atkinson his match was over and , very probably, he would be watching the European Champions Cup quarter-final against Leinster in Dublin from an armchair.
Atkinson ducked slightly into the tackle, but that only served to show that by aiming as high as the law allowed, at Atkinson’s shoulders, Farrell gave himself no wriggle room. Never mind as an experienced player he should have known better but the match was an hour old and Wasps were holding the champions.
It was the moment for a clear head, but a theme of Farrell’s career has been the frustration that can build up in a competitive player who is driven by success. England have been at their weakest under Eddie Jones, and for a while before him, when a match is slipping away from them in the final quarter. It happened in Cardiff in the Six Nations this year and in the World Cup final when they trailed by six points with 14 minutes to go.
Farrell’s dismissal against Wasps raised more questions about his suitability as captain, but in the current climate a red card for a high tackle is an occupational hazard. His immediate predecessor as captain, Dylan Hartley, had a far worse disciplinary record and the 2003 World Cup leader, Martin Johnson, was no stranger to the workings of the sport’s judiciary.
Jones has been around too long to be diverted by the opinions of others. He will have been thinking about potential alternatives as captain because that is his job and Farrell will not play every match in the eight nations tournament planned for November and December. It is also
because England need to become more flexible tactically, not carry on regardless when a ruse is rumbled, as happened in the opening half against France last February.
The captain sets the tone and for all Farrell’s combative attitude, his selfless commitment and his high value as a goal-kicker and architect of England’s attack, does his lack of detachment and tendency to run at a high temperature make him more of a soldier than a general?
His place in the England side has been questioned with George Ford blessed with more of the instinct Jones craves in an outside-half, but the physical and mental brutality of Test matches between the leading sides makes Farrell hard to leave out; for all of some of his lapses, and in the 2014 European Cup final between Saracens and Toulon in Cardiff he so lost it when the game went beyond his side that he ranted at a bemused Jonny Wilkinson, his merits amount to far, far more.
His character has been traduced since the red card, familiar territory for an England captain, but in his moments of reflection he may have asked himself why little attention had been paid to an incident the night before that left the Bristol centre Semi Radradra receiving attention to his head.
Radradra had broken from his own half at Worcester and one of the tries of the season looked on before he was felled from behind by a stiff-arm tackle. The referee, Wayne Barnes, awarded a penalty for a high challenge against Melani Nanai, who was playing his first match back after serving a three-week ban for a no-arms challenge on the Gloucester wing Jonny May.
Barnes initially said the challenge was “over the shoulder”, a view he sustained after reviewing the incident on the big screen and he took no further action. Why was he shown only one angle when footage from front-on showed contact was made with Radradra’s jaw?
Nanai was fortunate his tackle was not scrutinised by the television match official and that Radradra had a robust jaw. But there was no excuse for the incident failing to result in a citing as it was the very essence of what World Rugby last year proclaimed not just worthy of a red card but an automatic one.
Nanai was also fortunate that he was not Farrell, because he would have found himself under the harshest scrutiny. Being England captain carries responsibilities, but status does not matter when it comes to the perpetrator of dangerous and reckless challenges. That was the message during the World Cup, but Farrell will miss the next five matches while Nanai remains in the swing of it.