08 April 2014

You have got to get in the air!

The red card brandished at Jared Payne in the Heineken Cup quarter-final has wrecked Ulster’s season. It is even more frustrating that they eventually lost the game by a mere two points playing with fourteen men for all of seventy-six minutes. If they had competed with a full compliment for the entire game Ulster have every right to believe they would have been victorious.

The decision, regardless of which way the TMO went, was always going to be controversial. The rights and wrongs of the call will be debated for a long time to come and the incident will now become part of Ulster Rugby folklore forever more.

But apart from the emotion of the event that has exercised many, it does raise the question as to what are the protocols around adjudicating on a player fielding the ball in the air while at the same time colliding with another player?

After all rugby is a collision sport and players will always come into contact when competing for the ball.

Everybody agrees we want to protect a player who decides to jump when fielding a ball. That goes without saying. But there is also no argument there was absolutely no malice in the way Jared Payne contested for the ball. The proof of that is Payne never took his eyes off the ball as he challenged for it.

In fact he was doing exactly what every rugby player is coached to do when you are attempting to field a high ball: “Never take your eyes off the ball”.

Unfortunately, for Jared Payne he stayed in contact with the ground when he contested the ball and Alex Goode decided to leave the ground to contest for the ball.

What we have now set is a precedent whereby it is almost obligatory for a player to leave the ground to contest for a high ball. As any collision with a player also contesting for the same ball, but still on the ground, will result in the referee penalising the player who stayed on ‘terra firma’.

Always jumping to field a high ball will now become the accepted technique to contest for a high ball. Every player will now be coached to leave the ground to field a high ball. But having two players colliding in the air while contesting a high ball isn’t a sure-fire way of keeping player safe from injury.

It is fair to say if Jared Payne was also in the air when both players collided and the same result occurred, it is extremely unlikely he would have received a red card. His only sin was that he was in contact with the ground and Alex Good was in the air when they collided. Based on that fact alone Jared Payne was deemed to have warranted a red card.

But giving the player in the air all rights to the ball will undoubtedly incentivise all players to jump and claim those rights when fielding a high ball.

The accidental fall Alex Goode endured when he collided with Jared Payne just shows the risks associated with leaving the ground to field a high ball and in the process colliding with another player. That risk will always exist and is arguably even higher when two players collide in the air.

Does this interpretation of the law actually make the game safer or are there unintended consequence from now on? In future every player contesting a high ball will take to the air to get protection under law while at the same time running the risk of injury on landing.

Maybe the option that makes the game safer is to deem it illegal for anybody to jump in the air to field a high ball, unless of course they are safely supported at a line-out or at a restart.

Keeping everybody on the ground may take a spectacular aspect of the game away but it would remove the anomaly of giving the player in the air all rights to the ball. But more importantly it would certainly reduce the risk of anybody taking a dangerous fall when contesting for a high ball.