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The Nigel Owens verdict on controversial Freddie Steward red card

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Nigel Owens has had his say on last weekend’s controversial red card for Freddie Steward, the England full-back who had his sending-off rescinded at a midweek disciplinary hearing. It was during the first half in Dublin on Saturday when Steward was given his marching orders by referee Jaco Peyper following a collision with the head of Ireland’s Hugo Keenan.


Rugby fans were divided by what had taken place in a match that the Irish went on to win 29-16 and clinch the Guinness Six Nations Grand Slam.

It was Wednesday morning when the decision from the previous night’s virtually held disciplinary hearing emerged, a statement explaining that while there was head contact and that Steward had been reckless in his actions, mitigating factors including the late change in the dynamics and positioning of Keenan should have resulted in the issue of a yellow rather than a red card.

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Keenan commented in the aftermath of the disciplinary hearing decision: “It’s probably fair enough, isn’t it? It’s up to the citing commissioners and the refs to make those decisions, but it was a bit of an accident, wasn’t it? He was very apologetic nearly straight away after and then after on the pitch as well.”

Now, retired centurion referee Owens has waded into the post-mortem and given his verdict on the latest edition of Whistle Watch. “Pretty much everybody has had their say on the big talking point of the weekend,” he began, speaking from his farm in Wales.


“I would have to say the split is probably 60/40 in the yellow but not red card camp. I want you to try and take your emotions out of the decision-making or your view on it because if you are English, you will have a different view to probably most Irish. And also, if you are one of those in the camp that thinks the red cards spoil a game, you are automatically going to be thinking you don’t like that red card.

“The referee must get rid of all that emotion. He must deal with the facts, and it comes down simply to this: does he believe there has been foul play? If there is foul play, he then goes to mitigation and he goes to the degree of danger. If you look at it, look at the way the referee deals with it, it is very difficult to argue with his thought process.


“So, we can follow it and can agree with a red card, that the referee making the decision on the day said there is foul play. What he thinks is he believes that Freddie Steward is in a position where he could have changed what he was going to do next and because of that we have foul play, we have head contact and have a high degree of danger, we don’t have really much mitigation to take it down from a red – although some people may argue that there is – and therefore we have a red card.

“Totally understandable decision. Now when I am looking at that decision myself, I am thinking, ‘Do you know what, it is very difficult to argue with what Jaco Peyper has seen and why he has given the red card’.

“Now let’s go to the yellow card camp. Some are not even on a yellow card but most of you are if you are not on a red. So, you feel that Freddie Steward couldn’t do anything different. He couldn’t do anything to change what happened next and if that is what you feel and if that is what the referee felt at the time, then the referee would have come from a red to a yellow or he may have even decided there is no foul play because there was nothing he could do.

“So even though you have head contact, you haven’t got foul play and nobody has done nothing wrong so then we don’t have a sanction. But most of you are on the yellow card, so you feel that there was nothing Freddie Steward could have done differently. If that is the case then a yellow card is totally understandable.


“But to be honest, I am looking at this myself I can’t really disagree with the red card. Now, it would be very unfair for me to sit here and tell you I would have given a red or I would have given a yellow because I am not in that moment on the field. So in that moment on the field, it all comes down to what the referee deals with – the facts.

“Forget the emotions. Forget that you are English. Forget that you don’t like a 15 against 14 game. All of that is out the window – you deal with the facts and the facts are what Jaco Peyper explained and we have a red card which is not the wrong decision.

“But as I said, if you felt that Freddie Steward couldn’t do anything different, you give a yellow card, then I couldn’t disagree with you as well. I am very sorry to tell you, those who are sitting there going, ‘Nigel is sitting on the fence’ – I am not sitting on the fence because this is the game of rugby, you are going to have decisions that will just split the view on it and this is one of them.”


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