Freddie Steward should not have been shown a red card in England’s Six Nations defeat by Ireland last Saturday, a disciplinary committee has determined. Steward is free to play again immediately following the committee’s verdict that the England fullback ought to have been shown a yellow card after an incident which left Ireland’s Hugo Keenan concussed and opinion split.
Steward was charged with making a dangerous tackle on Keenan on the brink of half-time in Ireland’s 29-16 victory in Dublin. In an illustration of the complex nature of the incident, however, the disciplinary committee opted to change the charge Steward was facing. It considered whether he had breached a different law – that which states players must not do anything that is reckless or dangerous to others – rather than making a dangerous tackle.
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The committee agreed with the referee Jaco Peyper that head contact had occurred, that there had been foul play because Steward had been reckless and had been upright as he came into “highly dangerous contact” with Keenan, but crucially determined that mitigation ought to have applied including the “late change in the dynamics and positioning” of the Irish fullback.
Debate has raged over the incident since Saturday with those who feel Steward was hard done by questioning what else the England fullback could have done beyond vanishing on the spot while others point to the fact that Keenan was unable to continue the match having been struck on the head with force.
Keenan had stooped to gather the loose ball after Mack Hansen’s knock-on with Steward twisting his body as he braced for impact and catching his opposite number with his elbow, which was by his side. Peyper reviewed the incident with the television match official Marius Jonker and identified that head contact and foul play. He ruled that Steward “has to take care”, highlighting the England fullback’s clear line of sight, how he was upright into contact and how he was turning his shoulder.
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Peyper then determined that there was a high level of danger, that there was no mitigation and decided a red card was warranted. Steward argued his case, stating he braced for impact and “can’t go anywhere else”. Peyper did not take Steward’s plea into account, citing the “current climate” and, though Steward insisted he had only “milliseconds” to adjust, Peyper was adamant he had time to turn his shoulder and issued the red card.
Though the committee changed the charge, it has effectively agreed with Peyper up to the point that Steward had been reckless and committed foul play but disagreed with the South African official in that it felt there were mitigating circumstances. “The committee acknowledged that match officials are required to make decisions under pressure and in the heat of a live match environment,” read the committee’s verdict.
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The decision may come to be significant in terms of setting a precedent before the World Cup later this year. Peyper’s reference to the “current climate” was notable in that World Rugby is trying to eradicate dangerous tackles that make contact with the head by issuing strict sanctions for players. As this was an accidental collision there was a school of thought that the correct decision ought to have been to play on, on the basis that there was “no fault” attached to Steward.
The committee did not go that far but ultimately determined that Steward should not have been sent off in a match that Ireland went on to win and thereby clinch the Grand Slam. If England feel aggrieved, it should be noted they were 10-6 behind at the time but the committee’s verdict leaves a lingering sense of what might have been had Peyper reached the same decision on the field. – Guardian