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Ref Watch: Genge, Hepburn, Zebo, Botham and Sutherland - red or yellow?

By Paul Smith
Ellis Genge (Photo by Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images)

The Gallagher Premiership and United Rugby Championship’s citing officers and disciplinary committees face a busy start to 2022 after a number of high-profile players were involved in controversy over the course of the most recent round of action.


And their deliberations will be watched with greater than usual interest since Six Nations availability will hinge on the length of any suspensions handed down.

Alec Hepburn – Exeter v Harlequins 

Exeter’s England international saw red for a 39th minute tip tackle on Joe Marler.

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Offload – Lewis Ludlam

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Offload – Lewis Ludlam

The prop joined Sam Simmonds in a two-man hit and in the process produced a clear-out reminiscent of the infamous spear tackle on Brian O’Driscoll during the 2005 Lions series in New Zealand.

After consulting with TMO David Rose experienced referee Ian Tempest described the video evidence as “pretty clear.”

He went on: “It is a clear lift. There is two men involved and a throw, there is a bit of a release and no regard for No.1’s safety there who lands on his head. There is a lift, a let-go, the Harlequins player lands on his head.

“That is going to be a red card for Exeter No.1. A clear lift and a drop, no regard for his safety, he lands on his head, it will be a red card for No.1”



The main talking point about this decision surrounded the role played by England back-rower Sam Simmonds.

Exeter’s no.8 made the initial tackle on Marler’s left leg before being joined by Hepburn who arrived on his opponent’s right.

On this basis, the decision to card only one of the tacklers has been questioned – however looking at replays it is clear that the actions of the two tacklers are materially different.


While Hepburn lifted Marler’s right leg well beyond the horizontal, Simmonds manages to keep his left-hand side at a much lower level. Importantly the no.8 also keeps hold of Marler throughout the clear-out and by doing so in law is seen to have shown a regard for his opponent’s safety which is absent in Hepburn’s actions.

One red card – for Hepburn – is therefore entirely justified.

Simon Zebo – Munster v Ulster

Only 13 minutes had gone in the Irish derby when Munster scrumhalf Craig Casey put up a box-kick that Zebo and Jack Crowley chased.

Both players arrived just as Ulster’s Mike Lowry was landing after catching the ball and in their combined hit it was the Irish international winger who failed to adjust his height and as a result smashed his right shoulder into the full back’s face.

With significant force evident, although Lowry was on his way to ground and as a result below his usual height when contact occurred, the officials deemed a red card appropriate.


The main talking point surrounded the process by which the red card was awarded.

After watching four replays of the incident, Scottish referee Mike Adamson was content to send Zebo to the sin bin.

Speaking to TMO Brian MacNeice, Adamson said:

“Just confirming, we do have shoulder contact to the head and we are seeing that as foul play because the red player is upright – he’s not bent at the hips.

“We’ll just go into the level of danger. He’s coming from distance – I’m seeing it as a high degree, but there is another tackler involved so it is quite a dynamic situation. The player has caught it, he’s coming down, so I’m going to mitigate it as a yellow card. Are we seeing that? Are we seeing it as a mitigation?”

However, the TMO was convinced that Zebo’s tackle was reckless and encouraged Adamson to look at more replays until he eventually changed his mind and pointed out that Zebo should be tackling lower.

Rory Sutherland – Bath v Worcester 

The Warriors’ Scotland international prop saw red at the Rec after only 75 seconds when his upright tackle position was deemed to have caused a clash of heads with Bath’s Will Stuart.

The damage done ended the England tight head’s involvement in the match and he was immediately joined on the sidelines by Lions tourist Sutherland after referee Craig Maxwell-Keys brandished a red card.


This is exactly the kind of challenge which World Rugby’s crackdown seeks to eliminate and the red card was surely no surprise to anyone who saw the replay.

Getting players to bend and tackle lower is at the heart of the safety campaign – but – perhaps due to his frustration at suffering a narrow defeat despite playing almost the whole contest a man short, Worcester coach Jonathan Thomas seems to still be taking an ‘old school’ approach.

He said: “By the letter of the law it’s a red card and you can’t argue with it, but I think there is an issue with the law.

“I retired from rugby because of head knocks, so I am all about ensuring player safety.

“But it is an accidental head-on-head collision, and the footwork used by Stuart has to be a mitigating factor.

“Something is wrong with the game if we are going to have a sending-off for that.”

Since Stuart moved his 19 stone slightly to Sutherland’s left as the tackler approached he cannot be accused of having a total absence of ‘footwork.’

However, this was very definitely not a case of a prop being bamboozled by some Jason Robinson style dance moves and several years into a safety-led campaign there is no going back.

James Botham – Edinburgh v Cardiff

Cardiff’s Wales international flanker was hurt in the 56th minute as a result of a heavy head-on-head contact in a ruck from Edinburgh replacement Dave Cherry.

He received lengthy medical treatment on the pitch, with the game being held up for some five minutes before being stretchered off.

Thankfully the nine-times-capped back-rower subsequently Tweeted news of his speedy recovery.

Replays subsequently showed that Cherry collided with him as he cleared out, yet despite the lengthy delay referee Frank Murphy and TMO Neil Paterson declined to review the incident.


Given World Rugby’s stance on head contact and the amount of time the officials had available it does seem astonishing that the incident was not reviewed.

Of course, it may be that TMO Paterson looked at it behind the scenes and decided that there was no need to draw it to Murphy’s attention, or that the height at which it happened provided enough mitigation.

While both officials will be very aware of not stopping the game without good cause, the need to spot and deal with potential foul play – especially when the incident caused a serious head injury – is surely paramount.

Given the force with which Cherry’s head struck Botham this surely needed to go to the man in charge – even if only for completeness – and to prevent accusations of the incident being completely missed.

Ellis Genge – Wasps v Leicester

The Leicester skipper escaped with a yellow card for striking Wasps winger Francois Hougaard in the face then pulling his hair during an incident just before half-time.

While referee Tom Foley only brandished a yellow, many suggested Genge was fortunate not to have been given a straight red after appearing to intentionally push his hand into Hougaard’s face in the general vicinity of his eyes.

During a lengthy discussion with TMO Rowan Kitt, Foley described the England prop’s actions as “totally unnecessary” before adding “nothing was done by Hougaard to merit that reaction.”

When issuing Leicester’s captain with a yellow card Foley added that the response to Hougaard’s initial shove was “disproportionate.”


While BT pundits David Flatman and Austin Healey both concluded that a yellow card was sufficient punishment there is no doubt that other players have seen red for making contact with the eye area without having any intent to gouge and pulling hair – indeed Chris Ashton has managed both.

On another day with a different set of match officials Genge may have suffered a similar fate.


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