Continental Concerns

Continental Concerns

With annual events like Wimbledon and the Tour de France being joined by the Summer Olympics and the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa, the summer of 2021 was always going to be a busy one for those of us brave (or stupid) enough to fall in love with multiple sports. However, the COVID-19 pandemic then mad this summer even busier, with the postponement of Euro 2020 to this summer.

And what a tournament it ended up being. Unfancied Hungary caused plenty of scares in their group of death that saw them face France, Germany and Portugal. Defending champions Portugal went through as one of the best 3ʳᵈ-placed finishers in the pools and found themselves eliminated in the Round of 16. Denmark overcame the loss of their star player Christian Eriksen, who collapsed before halftime in their opening game, and recovered from losing their first 2 games to go all the way to the semifinals, while becoming everyone’s second team. Cristiano Ronaldo became the first player to score at 5 European Championships, and in 11 consecutive major tournaments, while breaking Michel Platini’s record for European Championship goals and Miroslav Klose’s record for goals scored in tournament finals for World Cups and European Championships combined. England defeated Germany in the knockouts of a major tournament for the first time since 1966. And after 51 matches and 142 goals, 2 saves from player of the tournament Gianluigi Donnarumma in a penalty shootout saw Italy declared European Champions, with England the heartbroken runners-up at Wembley.

There was a lot to look back on during this tournament, too much to put into adequate words, so I will be focusing on what really stood out for me over a series of 2 posts. I recently posted my thoughts focusing on England, today I will be looking at the wider tournament.

Heading towards trouble

One of the moments that stood out to me most during the tournament came just before the hour mark in the Group F match between France and Germany. France rightback Benjamin Pavard and Germany’s Robin Gosens both challenged for the ball in the France box, which resulted in the French defender going down with a knock to his head.

To anyone watching, it looked nasty, as Pavard just dropped to the ground without bracing himself, resulting in his head hitting the ground hard. You didn’t have to be a medical professional to know that he was knocked out. And so it was a massive shock when, after the quickest of tests and a squirt of cold water, the French medics sent him back on to continue the game!

Anyone who frequently reads my Premier League articles will have seen just how disgusted I have been by the way the Premier League and the clubs competing in it treat head injuries, well apparently the French Football Federation and UEFA are no better. When UEFA announced that they were investigating the incident, I finally thought that some degree of justice may be done, but that hope was quashed as they announced that following their investigation they were “satisfied the actions taken by the [French] medical team were in line with the concussion protocol” and that “According to reports we received from the team doctor, it seems a loss of consciousness did not occur.” Well that’s awkward, as Pavard even stated in an interview that he was “a little knocked out for 10 to 15 seconds – after that it was better”.

Head injuries are not a joke, they are deadly serious. Rugby and the NFL have been working hard to improve their act over recent years regarding head injuries—hell, even pro wrestling has improved the way they treat wrestler’s heads—but football seems determined to stick their head in the sand. I only hope that they get their act together before we are left with a tragic accident…

The best and the worst of us

Of course, we almost had a tragic moment during the pool stages, as Denmark’s star midfielder Christian Eriksen collapsed on the pitch just before halftime in his team’s opening match against Finland. The 29-year-old required CPR and defibrillation on the pitch before being rushed to hospital, and the match was understandably abandoned, before eventually being completed later in the day, once it had been announced that Eriksen was stable.

This was a shocking incident and horrible to watch, and a stark reminder as to the fragility of human life that this fit athlete in his peak years was suffering a cardiac arrest. It was a reminder that their are things much more important than football, and while you hope it will never happen, it brought out the best in some people. From the medics who acted without hesitation to save his life, to the officials who immediately stopped the game and called for the medics, realising that this was out of the ordinary. From the Finland fans who began chanting his name as everyone remained in the stadium waiting for news, to Kasper Schmeichel and Simon Kjær, who acted as true leaders on the pitch, organising their teammates to create a human screen to give their comrade privacy as he was treated on the pitch, while also helping to calm and look after Eriksen’s partner.

Unfortunately, this incident also showed the worst in some people. With the game not even 50% completed, UEFA officials gave the Danes the choice of completing the match later that evening or the following day at noon, or face the game going against them as a 3-0 loss. This led t a team that was clearly not in the right headspace returning to the pitch and suffering a 0-1 upset loss, with Kasper Schmeichel failing to make a save that you know he would have made on any other occasion.

But the absolute worst were the broadcasters, who clearly wanted to immortalise this moment on film. It is generally expected that a serious injury like a leg break will not be replayed on a broadcast, while in the final of this very same competition, cameras quickly cut away from the pitch as a streaker (just topless, not even fully nude) invaded the pitch, and yet those of us who were watching the Denmark game on BBC were forced to watch 10 minutes of the camera trying to get the best view it could of Eriksen undergoing CPR, only cutting away to show his partner’s visible distress.

The BBC eventually apologised, using the excuse that they were getting the images from an outside broadcaster: UEFA themselves. This is certainly true, as I got confirmation from a friend in Sweden that they were also forced to watch these horrific images for 10 minutes, and that in itself is truly shocking that nobody in the booth had the decency to order a cut to a wide image of the stadium. But the BBC can’t get out of it that easy, as they could have chosen to cut the feed at any point, but chose to go along with it for 10 minutes before cutting back to the studio. I completely understand that even the pundits would need a moment to take in what they have seen and be ready to go onscreen, but it’s impossible for me to imagine that they could not have cut to a commercial break for a couple of minutes to give them time.

On the plus side, Denmark recovered from this harrowing start to the tournament, and if anything it appeared to give them a focus, going all the way to the semifinal, while 21-year-old Mikkel Damsgaard did a fantastic job filling Eriksen’s boots. Hopefully, broadcasters and tournament organisers will also react positively off the back of this incident, just in case anything similar happens again in the future.

Failed experiment

While the major tournaments are usually hosted by just 1 country, Euro 2020 was unique in that it had 11 host nations each providing a stadium. While this was a romantic idea, I can’t help feel that it was a failure and should not be tried again.

Of course, one thing that certainly didn’t help things was the timely arrival of a global pandemic, which heavily limited travel and stadium capacities. But the big issue really was how some teams were able to get such an advantage. Take England for example, who were able to play all 3 of their group games at Wembley, stayed in London for their match against Germany, took a short trip to Rome for their quarterfinal, before returning to Wembley for the semifinal and final. In contrast, semifinal opponents Denmark (another host nation) played their 3 group games at home, before travelling to Amsterdam, then a pointless trip to Baku to face the Czech Republic and then on to Wembley for their eventual loss. And then there’s Belgium, who had to play in Russia, then Denmark, then Russia, before trips to Spain and Germany in the knockouts. How is it fair that some teams are able to spend almost the whole tournament at one venue, while others are travelling the length and breadth of the continent after every match?

Personally, I feel that the tournament needs to remain as just 1 host nation, or a collection of a couple of smaller nations who border each other. That way, even if one team is travelling twice as much as another, the distances are still relatively small, while the whole country can then benefit economically from the influx of fans during the tournament.

feat football Euro 2020 logo

A Tour Like No Other

A Tour Like No Other

After a 2-month delay and fears throughout of an enforced early finish, the 2020 edition of the Tour de France has come and gone. 176 riders started the race and 146 successfully completed the 3484.2km route around France. the 21 stages were won by 15 different riders, while the coveted maillot jaune was held by 5 different riders.

The winners

cycling tour de france 2020 pogacar bennett

So it’s safe to say that I got my prediction wrong here, with only 1 of my top 3 even making the podium. Following stints in yellow for Alexander Kristoff, Julian Alaphilippe and Adam Yates, it was no shock to see Primož Roglič take the yellow jersey on Stage 9. Tadej Pogačar had lost 1′ 21″ in the crosswinds of Stage 7, and while he made up some time on Roglič with a couple of stage victories, he could not crack his countryman and looked destined to finish 2ⁿᵈ in the GC until a crazy uphill time trial on Stage 20 saw him turn a 57 second deficit into a 59 second lead with just the procession into Paris remaining to win the yellow jersey competition (and white jersey for young rider) in his first Tour de France, with Roglič finishing 2ⁿᵈ and Richie Porte finally making a Tour de France Podium after years of bad luck.

In the green jersey competition, Alexander Kristoff won the opening stage and held the green jersey for the first couple of days until Peter Sagan took the lead in the Points Classification on Stage 3. The Slovak had won the green jersey every year since 2012 (save 2017, when he was thrown out the race for causing Mark Cavendish to crash), but found himself in a fight with Irishman Sam Bennett, who had left Bora–Hansgrohe for Deceuninck–Quick-Step because Sagan got priority over him. Stage 11 effectively ended Sagan’s hopes of retaining the green jersey, as in a 4-way sprint between him, Bennett, Caleb Ewan and Wout van Aert, he used excessive force on the Jumbo–Visma rider, resulting in his 2ⁿᵈ-place finish being discounted as he was relegated to the back of the peloton and docked points. While he continued to fight, Bennett proved too strong and secured the green jersey, before ending his first Tour de France with the added highlight of winning the famous sprint on the Champs-Élysées.

Benoît Cosnefroy of AG2R La Mondiale held the polka dot jersey for the Mountains classification for much of the race, until the GC fight saw Pogačar take the jersey on Stage 17. Richard Carapaz’s attacks in the final week saw him take the jersey on Stage 18, but Pogačar’s success on the uphill time trial saw him secure his 3ʳᵈ classification of the Tour. Movistar won the Teams Classification for the 5ᵗʰ time in 6 years, while Marc Hirschi of Team Sunweb was rewarded with the Combativity Award following a number of breaks that saw him pushing for stage victories.

cycling tour de france 2020 podium roglic pogacar porte

General Classification:

  1. Tadej Pogačar (Slovenia) – UAE Team Emirates – 87h 20′ 05″
  2. Primož Roglič (Slovenia) – Team Jumbo–Visma   + 00′ 59″
  3. Richie Porte (Australia) – Trek–Segafredo   + 03′ 30″

Points Classification:

  1. Sam Bennett (Ireland) – Deceuninck–Quick-Step – 380 points
  2. Peter Sagan (Slovakia) – Bora–Hansgrohe – 284 points
  3. Matteo Trentin (CCC Pro Team) – CCC Pro Team – 260 points

Mountains Classification:

  1. Tadej Pogačar (Slovenia) – UAE Team Emirates – 82 points
  2. Richard Carapaz (Ecuador) – Ineos Grenadiers – 74 points
  3. Primož Roglič (Slovenia) – Team Jumbo–Visma – 67 points

Young Rider Classification:

  1. Tadej Pogačar (Slovenia) – UAE Team Emirates – 87h 20′ 05″
  2. Enric Mas (Spain) – Movistar Team   + 06′ 07″
  3. Valentin Madouas (France) – Groupama–FDJ  + 1h 42′ 43″

Teams Classification:

  1. Movistar Team – 262h 14′ 58″
  2. Team Jumbo–Visma  + 18′ 31″
  3. Team Bahrain–McLaren  + 57′ 10″

Top Teams of the Tour

While Ineos Grenadiers grew into the race (except Egan Bernal) and Bora–Hansgrohe did a great job to energise some stages to help Peter Sagan in his chase for the green jersey, but there were 3 teams that really stood out to me on the Tour.

Team Jumbo–Visma came with arguably the strongest line-up of any team with former Grand Tour winners Primož Roglič & Tom Dumoulin, while George Bennett and Robert Gesink both have top 10 GC finishes in previous Grand Tours, Sepp Kuss is currently one of the form climbers since the resumption of races and Wout van Aert is arguably the best all-round rider in pro cycling at the moment, with an engine that never gives up and the ability to help power the peloton along all day then still fight it out with specialised sprinters. While individuals had the occasional off day, the team barely put a foot wrong, ruling the front of the peloton in a way that appeared even more dominant than what we are used to from watching Team Sky/Ineos over the last 5 years, and it was only on the time trial – where nobody could help Roglič – that the Slovenian cracked to lose what had just hours earlier looked to be a certain Grand Tour victory. The team came away with 3 stage victories (including 2 sprints for van Aert) and had a handful of other top 3 finishes.

cycling tour de france 2020 jumbo visma

Some of Bora–Hansgrohe’s moves may have caused issues for Deceuninck–Quick-Step, but Sam Bennett’s team did what they had to in order to wrest the green jersey away from Peter Sagan. While id didn’t ever feel like they were controlling the front of the peloton in the final 5 with dominant trains like in previous years, the entire team worked hard to look after Sam Bennett through the mountains and positioning him in the right places to attack the bunch sprint. What helped Bennett’s green jersey campaign so much was his lead-out man Michael Mørkøv. The Dane did so well to consistently get in the right position to lead Bennett out rather than force him onto the wheel of another sprinter, but even after he released Bennett he would keep riding as hard as he could like a 2ⁿᵈ sprinter, getting amongst Bennett’s rivals at both the end of the race and intermediate sprints and limiting the points available to those looking to compete against Bennett.

cycling tour de france 2020 deceuninck-quickstep

But to me, the team of the Tour – and the one that probably gained the support of many neutral fans – was Team Sunweb. While sprinter Cees Bol had a limited impact, Sunweb used clever tactics to great success. Marc Hirshci had some great success getting up the road, only to agonisingly lose in 2 sprints against GC opposition, before finally winning from a break in the middle of Stage 12. Even after this, he continued to fight and was unfortunate to crash on a descent in Stage 18 that ruled him out of competing for the stage win, but still finished in 3ʳᵈ on the stage. His success in the breaks saw him finish 4ᵗʰ in the Mountains Classifiaction. But it wasn’t just Hirschi who was the benefit of Sunweb’s tactics, as Søren Kragh Andersen was able to get away late on Stages 14 and 19 to provide the team 2 more stage wins. They may not have been in the hunt for the Points Classification or GC, but they certainly made the Tour a more enjoyable affair and in Hirschi and Andersen gave neutrals someone to cheer for as they did everything they could to convert their attacks into stage wins.

cycling tour de france 2020 sunweb

Silver linings to an Ineos cloud

Whether they are going by Team Sky, Team Ineos or now Ineos Grenadiers, one thing will never change: they are coming to a Grand Tour looking to win the GC. Unfortunately, none of their 3 prospective leaders (Egan Bernal, Chris Froome or Geraint Thomas) were at their best and the ne closest to being ready (Bernal) found himself struggling to stick with Roglič and abandoned after Stage 16, having fallen out of GC contention.

While this brought an end to the chances of a 6ᵗʰ consecutive Tour de France GC victory, there were certainly silver linings for the team. Despite being injured in multiple falls during a rain-drenched opening stage, Pavel Sivakov completed the race and made the top 10 in the Young Rider Classification and remains a hope for the future. Meanwhile without a leader to protect, Richard Carapaz showed his quality in the late mountain stages to put himself in with a shot of winning the Mountains Classification, while he could have had a stage win had he not allowed ever-reliable Michał Kwiatkowski to cross the line first on Stage 18 for his first ever stage victory at the Tour.

cycling tour de france 2020 ineos carapaz kwiatkowski

And for those who think this is the end of the success for Ineos Grenadiers, think again! Froome may be leaving at the end of the season, but they still have 3 proven Grand Tour winners in Bernal, Thomas and Carapaz and a strong team with some younger riders like Sivakov who will only get better, while they are bringing in some great talent in Andrey Amador, Rohan Dennis and Adam Yates, as well as some young Brits.

The good, the bad and the ugly

As is always the case, the Tour gave us some beautiful moments. From riders being overcome with emotion after winning stages to Julian Alaphilippe dedicating his stage win to his father, who had died on the day that the Tour was initially meant to start. Add in the usual beautiful scenery, some fun from some of the team’s Twitter accounts, Matteo Trentin channelling Michael Fish on Stage 1, Wout van Aert doing everything and a much-deserved stage win for Michał Kwiatkowski, and there is plenty to look back on fondly.

Unfortunately, as wonderful as the race was, it’s safe to say that there were some moments that really harmed my enjoyment.

First off was the support (or should I say lack of support) for Black Lives Matter. We have seen support from so many sports, for example in the Premier League (football), Premiership (rugby) and also Formula 1, which made the lack of support during the Tour even more conspicuous in its absence. If anything, this was highlighted even more by only 1 black rider (Kévin Reza of B&B Hotels–Vital Concept) in the peloton. It was great to see ITV run a feature highlighting black cyclists, but is that really enough? And then when we finally got an act of support for BLM on the final day, it was arguably worse than nothing at all, as all we had was pro-BLM messages or anti-racism messages written on masks that were removed before the race even started. Cycling needs to prove it doesn’t have a race problem, and step 1 is showing more suitable support for Black Lives Matter.

cycling tour de france 2020 BLM no to racism

Second was a horrible incident involving Romain Bardet. The AG2R La Mondiale rider went down heavy in a crash during Stage 13, but was helped back onto his bike and completed the stage, before abandoning with a suspected concussion that was revealed to be a “small haemorrhage”. The UCI regulations say the following regarding concussion: “All those in the presence of a rider and in particular all doctors and paramedical assistants shall be watchful for riders showing symptoms of concussion… Any rider with a suspected concussion should be immediately removed from the competition or training and urgently assessed medically.” Footage clearly showed Bardet fall down as he was helped to his feet immediately after the crash – more than enough of a warning sign for concussion – and yet he was heled straight back onto his bike to continue the race and nobody made any attempt to stop him for an assessment following this. I completely understand that as a GC rider, having to go through a medical assessment will make it impossible to catch up with the peloton and most likely bring an end to your GC hopes, but the health and safety of the riders should be paramount and come before the race. Hopefully it won’t take something more serious to see an increased focus on checking riders.

And finally, but sticking with the idea that the health and safety of the riders should be paramount, I come to the “fans” who think that it is OK to break protocols during a pandemic and get right in the face of riders without a mask on. As well as potentially creating a risk of interfering with the rider’s race, it is putting the in so much danger of falling ill and potentially spreading it amongst the team and potentially even the peloton. Even in a normal race I hate seeing crowds filling the road; with the ongoing pandemic, it leaves me so angry and nervous!


Well that’s the Tour over for another year, but the good news is that we still have 2 more Grand Tours coming up in the next few weeks, while next year’s Tour should be back at the usual dates so we won’t have to wait quite as long as usual for it.

Thanks for reading. Until next time!

October 2018 in the Premier League

October 2018 in the Premier League

Just the 3 rounds of football in October as the international break took place after the first week of matches. Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea continue their unbeaten starts to the season with 2 wins and a draw each. City’s results were probably the most impressive of the 3 as they drew with Liverpool (who remain level on points) and won against Burnley and at Spurs. Arsenal matches the results of the teams ahead of them, as did Manchester United – who were denied a win at Stamford Bridge courtesy of a late Ross Barkley goal – and Bournemouth, who continue to surpass expectations and hold onto a spot in the top 6. The only team to win all their games in October was Brighton, who managed 3 consecutive 1-0 victories, while Fulham were the only team not to pick up a single point this month.

The best of football

Football fans don’t always get painted in the best light – often for good reason – but there were some instances this month that really caught my eye and thought were worthy of praise.

The biggest of these has come in circumstances that we wish had not happened, but centres around the reaction to the helicopter crash following Leicester’s 1-1 draw with West Ham that saw 5 people including Leicester owner and chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. Football fans have not always been the best at showing respect for other clubs’ previous tragedies, but the way that the entire football community has responded to the incident is highly commendable.

On a lighter note, the other moments of class have been related to former players returning to their old home ground with new teams. I remember the shock when Juan Mata was sold to United. Mata was a fan-favourite at Stamford Bridge and has understandably become one at Old Trafford too, so it was wonderful to see both home and away fans give him a standing ovation as he left the pitch during United’s 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge. Similarly, it was great to see Manchester City fans give keeper Joe Hart such a warm welcome on his return to the Etihad with Burnley. He was such a big piece of the club through their early years of success and it never felt right with me the way he was so easily discarded by Pep Guardiola, so it was great to see the fans give him the respect he deserved. It’s just a shame that he was left picking the ball out the back of his net 5 times, especially given a couple of huge decisions from the officials really went in City’s favour during the game.

Kick it out

From some of the best of football to some of the worst.

We quickly find ourselves back at Stamford Bridge and in the final moments of the match as Ross Barkley salvaged a point for Chelsea. While I can understand that emotions would run high at a moment like that, there was no excuse for Chelsea coach Marco Ianni to come running out of the dugout and celebrate not just in front of the United bench, but also to direct his celebration towards them. There is no need whatsoever, it is taunting plain and simple and I have to comment José and the United bench for not reacting the first time. But because they didn’t react, Ianni decided to do it again, sparking ugly scenes at the tunnel. It’s great to see that Sarri apologised and that the FA reacted to the incidents, but a £6,000 fine is pathetically small. This is the Premier League, one of the biggest – if not the biggest – and most popular leagues in the world. Children will be watching Ianni’s actions and thinking that’s acceptable. It isn’t! It was a disgusting and blatant act of disrespect towards Mourinho and the United team and the punishment should have been much more severe.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t it this month as the diving epidemic continued in October. Now first things first, credit to the referees who are coming down hard on the players, with Laurent Depoitre, Aboubakar Kamara and Willian all booked this month for blatant dives, while Alvaro Morata was also cautioned for going down easily during a face-off with a couple of Burnley defenders. Diving is disgusting and needs eliminating from the game. The only problem is that as the referee has picked up on these instances of simulation and given the punishment they can (a yellow card is the maximum punishment on the pitch), the FA cannot give any further punishment. This needs to change if the FA are serious about stamping out diving. If a player knows that they will face a 3-match ban for diving regardless of whether or not they deceive the officials (or better yet get a longer ban if their deception is successful) then after a while players will not want to take the risk as they will know they are putting themselves at risk.

He needs to go!

At almost £90m Paul Pogba was always going to be considered an expensive signing, but I would also call him a costly one. The player has often felt like a distraction in the changing room this season, and if it comes to a matter of someone having to leave Old Trafford and the board picking between Pogba or Mourinho, then I am firmly behind keeping Mourinho.

Pogba has been frustrating on the pitch this season. He has some wonderful moments where he plays beautiful passes, but then he also has plenty of other moments where at best he is anonymous and at worse a liability. He lost his man Antonio Rüdiger far too easy at a corner to allow the German to open the scoring and his showboating lost the ball against Everton, leading to the foul by Chris Smalling that earned a penalty.

And then there’s the penalties. The most pathetic thing I have ever seen on a football pitch. forgoing a run-up for over 20 tiny steps, leaving no power in the shot and making him look stupid if he doesn’t score (he was lucky against Everton that Pickford’s save sent the ball back to him to score on the rebound). With the players in the United squad, there must be someone who can take a proper penalty and if United can get some decent players in January then I will have no problem with them selling Pogba for what will likely be a loss financially.

Attitudes need to change

It was good to see that Glenn Murray made such a quick recovery following Brighton’s win at Newcastle. Murray and Magpies defender Federico Fernández clashed heads competing for an aerial ball and as Murray landed, his body folded and his arms did not protect his fall, leading to his head hitting the floor with sickening force.

Full credit to the players and officials for stopping the game immediately and the medics for their quick actions to stop things from getting worse, but watching Match of the Day, I was shocked to hear commentator Guy Mowbray describe the incident as “something and nothing” as the replays showed Murray’s head hitting the ground. Concussion is a serious worry and this is unfortunately not the first time that the actions of people involved in the Premier League have made it look as if they are not so focused on it. I really hope they prove me wrong.

Top 6 prediction

  1. Manchester City
  2. Liverpool
  3. Chelsea
  4. Arsenal
  5. Tottenham Hotspur
  6. Manchester United


Playing It Safe

Now that we are in January and Premiership teams are allowed to make contact with rival team’s players (although they seem to have been doing that for months), there is clearly one main topic of conversation amongst rugby fans: the new high tackle directives from World Rugby.

The new directives, which came into effect on January 3rd, have redefined the high tackle into ‘reckless’ or ‘accidental’ tackles, with a greater sanction for reckless tackles:

Reckless tackle
A player is deemed to have made reckless contact during a tackle or attempted tackle or during other phases of the game if in making contact, the player knew or should have known that there was a risk of making contact with the head of an opponent, but did so anyway. This sanction applies even if the tackle starts below the line of the shoulders. This type of contact also applies to grabbing and rolling or twisting around the head/neck area even if the contact starts below the line of the shoulders.

Minimum sanction: Yellow card
Maximum sanction: Red card

Accidental tackle
When making contact with another player during a tackle or attempted tackle or during other phases of the game, if a player makes accidental contact with an opponent’s head, either directly or where the contact starts below the line of the shoulders, the player may still be sanctioned. This includes situations where the ball-carrier slips into the tackle.

Minimum sanction: Penalty

It’s fair to say these new directives have had a mixed response from fans so far, with a number of controversial decisions in recent weeks – including Richard Barrington’s red card against Exeter and a couple of decisions in the Scarlets v Ulster match – souring people’s opinions. It certainly feels that the interpretations of high tackles, tip tackles and aerial challenges has brought us to a point where fans spend their free time trying to come to an agreement over whether a refereeing decision is correct almost every week.

However, what must be remembered is that World Rugby are not just making these changes for the sake of change, they are doing this with player safety in mind. Modern rugby has seen a drastic increase in the size and strength of the average rugby player, so any contact will have an increased effect on a player’s body.

After a number of discussions at work about the Barrington red card, and Brad Barritt’s subsequent ban for his part in the incident, I decided (with a bit of gentle persuasion) that it was worth getting this down in an article.


Intent vs Outcome

It’s safe to say that there will have been very little malicious intent in any of the challenges that have been carded over the last few weeks, but in a sport as physical as rugby accidents can happen. Some people will look at incidents like Tusi Pisi’s red card for a challenge in the air on Jamie Shillcock and argue that rugby is going soft as there was clearly no attempt to cause injury. We can’t judge severity of actions by intent though as referees are not mind readers. They must look at the cold hard facts of a challenge and the only way to do so effectively is to look at the outcome. Looking back at the 2011 World Cup with the way the tackle is refereed now, I can’t believe there was ever an argument against Sam Warburton being shown a red card for his tackle on Vincent Clerc!

Where it does become more difficult is the refereeing of an aerial challenge. Here the challenge only becomes an offence if there is not a ‘fair competition’ for the ball, otherwise this is just a rugby incident. Law 10.4(i) describes fair competition as ‘both players in a realistic position to catch the ball’. While this is good to see as it still encourages competition for the high ball, this puts the incident at the interpretation of the officials. I was happy to see Wayne Barnes recently speaking on Rugby Tonight about how the referees meet to review incidents from the weekend to make sure that they are all judging challenges the same. While any incident in a rugby game will generate a variety of opinions, all we can ask is that the individuals in charge of the game are making the right decisions with the evidence they have to hand.

Punishing the outcome of a challenge is also important as the actual physical incident is what causes injury rather than a player’s intent. By being strict on these challenges it is encouraging the players to adapt to the way the game is now being refereed, making challenges safer moving forward. As much as we may feel these rules are softening up the game, they are designed to protect players from injury. Are a couple of ‘soft’ cards and delays in play worth it if it improves the physical wellbeing of the players? I certainly think so.

What else am I meant to do?

It must be remembered that there are at least 2 people involved in a tackle: the tackler and the ball carrier. There is only so much a tackler can do to ensure player safety, if a ball carrier ducks or slips into a tackle unexpectedly, the tackler won’t always have a chance to modify the way he is tackling to keep it safe. Geoff Parling appeared to duck slightly just before contact with Brad Barritt. While I am not saying Barritt’s tackle would have been legal without Parling ducking, it certainly hasn’t helped the situation. There will also be times where another player has an effect on the tackle, as in the case of Sam Davies’ yellow card against Connacht. Davies lined up to tackle the man, but due to another Ospreys player already attempting to tackle him, the ball carrier appeared to drop in height right before the contact, moving Davies’ tackle into the danger zone. I am sure that referees will take mitigating factors into account, but it may also result in players tackling lower to ensure that even if the ball carrier slips at the last moment, the tackle is still safe.

There have also been some fair points on how try-line defence will be affected by the stricter directives with regards to tackles that slip up around the neck. Probably the most contentious card given under the new directives so far would be that of Ulster’s Sean Reidy against Scarlets. Reidy’s tackle around the shoulders of Aled Davies was deemed high and he was given a yellow card while Scarlets were awarded a penalty try. Ben Kay and Ugo Monye recently showcased how the current laws and directives make it difficult to defend the pick-and-go off the back of a ruck on the try-line. Ball carriers driving for the line in this position will stay low, increasing the risk of a tackler making contact with the head. However a tackler cannot go too low or they will be unable to wrap their arms and will be penalised for an illegal chop tackle. While we all want to see high-scoring games, the last thing we want as spectators is to see penalty tries and cards each game for making legitimate attempts to tackle the man when there is no other way to stop them from scoring.

An honest assessment

Since August 2012, World Rugby have allowed some form of temporary replacement while players are being tested for symptoms of concussion. In August 2015, this officially took the form of a 13 minute Head Injury Assessment. While this is a great measure to improve player safety, it is by no means perfect at the moment.

George North was famously allowed to play on after passing a HIA, even though everyone watching the replays (other than the Northampton coaches and medical team) could clearly see that he was knocked unconscious following an aerial collision with Leicester’s Adam Thompstone. Amidst a strong backlash from the rugby world, Northampton were cleared by a concussion panel review set up by the RFU and Premiership Rugby. Even World Rugby surprised fans by declaring themselves ‘disappointed’ in Northampton’s conduct but praising the response of Premiership Rugby and the RFU. In many fan’s eyes, this whole incident undermined the strong stance being taken on player welfare, specifically relating to head injuries. And unfortunately it’s not a one-off case. Sale Sharks, already being sued by former scrum half Cillian Willis for wrongful handling of a head injury that resulted in his early retirement, are now being investigated for a potential breach of concussion protocol after allowing TJ Ioane to continue playing without a HIA after appearing to be concussed when trying to make a tackle.

Perhaps even more scary was rugby hardman Jamie Cudmore’s interview on Rugby Tonight a few weeks back, when he spoke of how he was told his match was over following a head injury when playing for Clermont in the semi-final of the European Cup but was soon back on the pitch as his replacement was struggling. After being stood down for a couple of weeks, he went on to play in the final and began vomiting in the changing room whilst getting a blood injury stitched up but was still allowed to complete the game.

If World Rugby and the national unions want to prove they are serious about player safety, incidents like this cannot be allowed, especially when there are other teams who are following the concussion protocols and being put at a disadvantage by this. In a recent game against Exeter, Bath had already brought on both their replacement props due to injuries. One of these replacements then had to come off in the final 6 minutes due to a head injury, but as there were no more props available to come on, Bath had to see the game out a man down and ended up losing due to a 76th minute try. There is no way to guarantee that Bath would have held on with 15 men on the pitch, but with momentum already beginning to swing in Exeter’s direction, they could not afford to be playing a man down. Perhaps with HIAs becoming more common, the number of replacements allowed on the bench needs to be increased, even if the maximum number of permitted substitutions remains the same. At the very least, it seems harsh to penalize a team by making them play a man down if there is a player who can come on in this situation, even if he can’t play prop, though I understand that a team cannot be allowed to possibly gain an advantage by replacing an ‘injured’ prop with a hooker to allow uncontested scrums.


Every cloud has a silver lining

While it’s understandable that some people will feel unhappy at how strict rugby is becoming in the refereeing of any contact, it is clearly with good intentions. The big hit is not being outlawed from the game, it is simply being made safer for everyone involved… though I doubt that is any consolation to Jules Plisson when he wakes up from a nightmare of being tackled by Courtney Lawes!

In time, players will hopefully begin to tackle lower to avoid high tackles, and this could actually lead to an improvement in the quality of the game. Tackling around the legs or lower torso will increase the chances of a ball carrier being able to offload the ball out of the tackle, resulting in a better, more flowing game. If it reduces the number of scrums being caused by the choke tackle, I’m not going to be complaining!

Tackling the school rugby debate

Over the last couple of weeks there has been a lot of debate on whether school rugby should involve full contact or if it is better to just teach tag rugby in schools. When the debate began, my immediate thought was to keep the contact, but I’ve given myself a bit of time to think about it and thought it was about time to try to put together a balanced argument both ways on the matter.

Against the tackle

The main argument to ban the tackle is the risk of injury to the children playing. This is a valid concern, rugby is first and foremost a collision sport. At each contact, especially the ruck, the tackle and the scrum, there is a chance of a player getting injured. I have always been lucky to avoid any serious injuries, but I certainly developed enough cuts and bruises over my time to look like someone had been giving me a good beating. I’ve known plenty of people when I was at school who missed time due to injuries.Broken bones, sprains and dislocations are always a risk when going into contact.

On top of this, recent years have made a big focus on the risk of concussion. George North has missed significant playing time in recent seasons following a series of concussions, but this is not a risk limited to just the pros. I’ve helped out a bit in Junior level club rugby the last few years and seen kids pick up concussions.

There is no guarantee that playing tag rugby would completely eliminate all chance of injury, but it would certainly lead to a reduction in injuries, especially the more serious ones.

For the tackle

Rugby is a contact sport, plain and simple. That is a big part of what makes it such a popular game to watch and play. Would Twickenham or Murrayfield fill up for international tag rugby games? Call me a cynic, but I doubt it.

Furthermore, it’s not as if rugby is the only sport in schools that contains a risk of injury. Football is in itself a dangerous sport, there is plenty of chance to get injured from a poor football tackle. There is also a concussion risk in football from players attempting to head the ball, to the point that there were discussions of banning this for under 11s in America. Hockey is another sport played in schools that again naturally has a risk attached to it. Give a bunch of kids a big wooden stick and make them run around trying to hit a ball, what could possibly go wrong…?  As I said earlier I’ve been lucky with injuries, to the point that my worst injury (barring one unfortunate knock to the knee) was a broken nose doing the high jump of all events (I’m a certain kind of special). If rugby should be changed at school due to injury risk, then why should all of these other sports stay as they are?

One of the big arguments to not change rugby is that it is character building. As an 11 year old, I weighted 10 stone and was seriously unfit, I didn’t mind a kickabout with friends but would not have considered playing sport seriously. Fast forward a few months and I was a regular starter form my school’s rugby B-team. One of the big selling points of rugby is that it’s a game for everyone – tall, short, big or small – there’s a position for everyone.  If I hadn’t started playing when I did, I am pretty certain that I would be a very different person. Rugby has always prided itself on its values of respect and camaraderie, it certainly helped bring me out of my shell as a kid, and helped me through university too. Tag rugby puts ball skills, elusiveness and running lines at a premium, not a bad thing in itself, but certainly not a sport that 11 year old me would have felt comfortable in.

There is also the argument that if we delay the teaching of tackling, we will be making it harder for our pros to compete at the top of the game. Maro Itoje is only 21 years old but has 3 senior international caps (2 of them in the starting XV) and a man of the match to his name. Martyn Williams has already described him as a future British & Irish Lions captain. If he hadn’t been tackling in school, how long would it have taken him to break into the national team, or would he have missed out completely? While England as a rugby nation is certainly behind some of the top countries in terms of ball handling ability – just look at the New Zealand props during the World Cup – would delaying the introduction of tackling put us even further back in our battle to reach the top of the game?

Time to compromise?

It’s impossible to deny that playing full contact rugby will run the risk of injury. The real debate should be how can the risk be minimised so that the game can continue to expand whilst also protecting the players.

Proper coaching is vital. I lost count of the number of times I heard coaches say that it was important to go into contact with complete conviction, as being hesitant was more likely to result in injury to the players involved. A lot of the head injuries we see are at least in part down to poor tackling technique, players putting their head in the wrong place when making a tackle, or going for the big man-and-ball tackle so clashing heads. Incidents like this need to be shown as how NOT to tackle as well as careful coaching of correct and safe tackling technique. There also needs to be a greater focus on avoiding the big collision, running at a tackler’s arms and shoulders or, even better running at space, rather than running head on into a tackler front-on. Not only should that reduce the chance and severity of injuries, but it should also improve the quality of rugby played.

The good news is that the media is improving in how it deals with these incidents during a match. A few seasons back players would be applauded by commentators for carrying on playing after a knock to the head that had clearly caused them issues. They were warriors who would put their body on the line for their team, nothing was more important than the result. Now commentators are quick to discuss player safety and point out instances of poor and dangerous tackling technique, even if the incident itself hasn’t led to a noticeable injury. This shift in focus during match broadcasts will only help to educate kids in safe and proper technique.

I feel that tag rugby does have a place in the school curriculum, but not at the complete expanse of contact rugby. When I was at school, the boys were split into 2 groups for rugby: the team and the rest. Maybe the ‘rest’ category needs to be split into 2 groups, one for contact rugby and one for tag rugby. The team and the contact group should still play tag rugby to improve their rugby skills, but then at least there is a group available for any kids who do not want to play contact or whose parents don’t want them to play contact rugby.

But this is just my personal opinion. The people who get paid to make the big important decisions need to look at all the evidence and options available to make sure they are coming to the best possible outcome for all parties. Ministers, medical officers and RFU officials, its over to you…