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Ref Watch: Peyper was right to send Freddie Steward off

By Paul Smith
Jaco Peyper flashes Freddie Steward a red card - PA

Anyone wanting to summarise the tangle that rugby union’s law makers have created in their quest to reduce the amount and severity of head injuries needs look no further than England full back Freddie Steward’s sending off in Dublin.


Despite the outrage expressed on social media – including predictably loud outbursts by usual suspects Andy Goode, Austin Healey and Joe Marler – I defy anyone to work through World Rugby’s head contact protocols and reach an alternative outcome.

Brian O’Driscoll delivered a rational piece of analysis along these lines during the half-time interval at the Aviva Stadium with which it was extremely hard to disagree.

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Referee Jaco Peyper provided his fellow officials and the listening TV audience with a word-perfect summary of how match officials are now required to approach their evaluation of this type of incident then determine the most appropriate sanction.

“It is direct to the head with force, he has clear line of sight, he is upright, there is a high level of danger and no mitigation,” he said, before waiting to hear if either touch judge or the TMO disagreed.

We have twice seen Karl Dickson intervene from the touchline in recent weeks to change the colour of the card being issued – but unfortunately for England’s outstanding player of this Six Nations there was to be no such stay of execution this time and a red card duly followed.

As those who perhaps played rugby in their younger days, love watching on TV or at their local club and relish the sport’s traditional values are always quick to point out there was no intent in Steward’s actions. But since the law makers removed intent and replaced it with the above protocol this has no relevance, crazy though it seems.


Was he instinctively trying to protect himself against a close-quarter contact with an off-balance opponent? Probably.

Did he have time to get out of the way? Possibly not.

Was this a typical ‘rugby incident’ the kind of which has taken place on a regular basis since Webb Ellis had his moment in the spotlight at Rugby School? Absolutely.

But none of this matters any more to a sport which is desperately trying to protect its professional participants from the kind of health issues afflicting Steve Thompson and upwards of 200 other ex-pros and its coffers from their resulting legal action.

If you are able to find the phrase ‘rugby incident’ in the law book then please let me know. Referees do not have the option to deal with the majority of what were once considered unavoidable collisions as accidental no-blame collisions.


If you think this seems ludicrous in a contact sport then I am 100 per cent in agreement with you, but most of us don’t have 200 cases of early-onset dementia and potential damages which could reach tens if not hundreds of millions of pounds to worry about.

The one aspect of this about which I am 100 per cent clear is that Jaco Peyper plus TMO Marius Jonker and touch judges Christophe Ridley and Ben O’Keeffe handled this situation exactly as they are instructed. When you read social media hysteria please bear this in mind.

Indeed, from Peyper’s perspective the phrase which springs to mind is “don’t shoot the messenger” since – as I never tired of telling players during my time refereeing – he doesn’t write the laws, he just applies them.


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Nick 451 days ago

If we are saying that a player, who is trying to kill the ball after a knock on by his team, can lose balance, stoop down and headbutt an opponent on the arm and get them sent off we are in danger of changing rugby forever.
How can someone standing still be coming with force? It's physically impossible. The only force was the clumsy ball killing Irishman diving headfirst at Steward.
If Seward had moved his arm and been headbutted full force in the ribs, potentially cracking ribs and puncturing a lung, would he have avoided being sent off?
Just to even things up, some Irish thug blatantly smashed a prone English forward, with actual force and shock horror zero punishment.

Rob 452 days ago

Apologies, I'm not an expert but one thing stood out for me was the forward pass. Poor pass not just because it was forward, but because it was low too. This puts Keenan further forward AND lower than he should have been in normal play, giving Steward even less time to react. If this isn't mitigation then I don't know what is.

Thomas 453 days ago


David 453 days ago

Having now studied the WR protocol on head contact, I've changed my mind and think the ref got this wrong. He jumped too quickly to the Degree of Danger and Mitigation elements. As Ollie pointed out, there first has to be Foul Play. WR tells the ref to focus on whether the action was intentional, reckless or avoidable. I don't think anyone would say that Steward's action was intentional or reckless, so the debate would be about whether it was avoidable. Equivalent to my question to which I'm still awaiting an answer: 'what should he have done differently?'. The examples of 'foul play' cited in the protocol (9.11, 9.13 and 9.20) don't seem to apply. So I think 'play on' would have been the right decision, as the WR flowchart indicates.

But having determined Foul Play, the ref's next test is Degree of Danger. Peyper determined high force. That was principally caused by the former attacker running at speed into someone who was trying to pull out. It wasn't Steward causing the high force. But under the Protocol that doesn't matter. Once the ref has determined Steward committed foul play, then the sanction is automatic, depending whether the risk is high, low or medium. Having determined high risk, I understand why he gave a red.

Obviously I disagree with some here in that I wouldn't argue for mitigation at step 4. But I don't need to. WR's own protocol gives several examples of 'Play On' (no foul):

• Sudden and significant drop in height by the ball carrier
• Player had no time to readjust
• Passive action
• Involuntary collision
• No leading arm when close to the body.

Surely most, if not all, of these apply to Steward's situation. I think Peyper and O'Driscoll got it wrong.

Jonah 453 days ago

Anybody who doesn't condemn this kind of nonsense for the rubbish it is and call for a lifetime ban on Peyper shouldn't watch the game.

S 453 days ago

Hi Paul, I would appreciate clarification as to what foul play Peyper and the TMO concluded was committed by Steward under the Rules of the game. Was it 9.13, which seems odd as Steward was not attempting to make a tackle? Or was it 9.11, also strange as it appeared that Steward was trying to avoid collision. Or was it something else? Does there not need to be foul play before a player can be given a red card?

Ollie 453 days ago

Everyone saying there is nothing in the laws for rugby incidents... There is! It's in the framework, which is - has there been contact to the head or neck? Yes (proceed). Has there been foul play? No - nothing happens.

This is NOT brain science peeps. World Rugby even have this in their flow charts. If you can call Freddie Stewards actions foul play - you're on something.

But in this case, if you did - there's so much mitigation for the event - the fact its not a yellow is a farce in itself. And the ARs and TMO are spineless for not correcting JP

David 453 days ago

First let me say that, under the current protocol, we shouldn't blame the referee for issuing a red card. However, I don't think the law is adequate to address this situation.

This wasn't a standard attacker v defender situation. It was a collision that took place in transition after an attack broke down. The original attacker (Keenan) carried on despite the obviously forward pass - presumably to ensure England couldn't play the advantage. Whereas the original defender (Steward) had no intention of playing an advantage and was trying to stop. Because of that misunderstanding, the former attacker went into contact with his head low (but still with the ball) whilst the former defender didn't prepare for a tackle by lowering his height as would normally be the case. [As an aside - it would be interesting to know whether Peyper would have assessed the situation identically if Keenan had failed to pick up the ball. I presume he would, although that in itself begs another question!].

In any event, I don't think the fair decision is to issue a red card in such a case. If referees are being instructed to rigidly follow a protocol, then it needs to address all possible cases on a rugby field ..... including less common ones like yesterday's. Brian O'Driscoll's emotional and over-simplistic opinion on TV yesterday still doesn't answer the question: what should Steward have done differently? If noone can answer that question satisfactorily, then it shouldn't be a red card - however serious the head injury/lawsuit problem that World Rugby has.

Piat 453 days ago

I saw it as the Ireland playing lowering his head and running into the England fullback, deliberate head butt and should have got a red card.

Paul 453 days ago

They need to replace the 'intent' in the law. At this level of play you cannot win with only 14 men on the field for an hour or more. Why not just stop the game and award it to the other team, because that, in effect is what hapens.

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