Rugby World Cup: England coach Steve Borthwick queries World Rugby high-hits approach

Owen Farrell leaves the field after being shown a yellow card, later escalated to a red, by referee Nika Amashukeli
Owen Farrell was initially shown a yellow card by referee Nika Amashukeli which was reviewed and escalated to a red by the foul play review official, known as the ‘bunker’ system
Venue: Stade de Nice Date: Sunday 17 September Kick-off: 20:00 BST
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England coach Steve Borthwick has queried the consistency of World Rugby’s approach to high tackles after a series of controversial incidents at the World Cup.

Borthwick has suggested that rugby union’s world governing body has been less publicly vocal regarding high tackles at the tournament than it was over the incident that landed England captain Owen Farrell with a four-match ban.

France’s Romain Taofifenua, New Zealand’s Ethan de Groot, Chile’s Martin Sigren and South Africa’s Jesse Kriel have all been involved in incidents at the World Cup that have stoked the debate around high tackling.

Farrell, meanwhile, has yet to feature at the tournament, after World Rugby intervened to appeal successfully against a disciplinary panel decision to rescind his red card in a warm-up match against Wales on 12 August.

“I have noted the large amount of commentary from different sources about what appears to be a lack of consistency and a lack of transparency around the decision-making process,” said Borthwick.

“It is obviously not my role to comment on that – that is World Rugby.

“I also note there was a tremendous amount of comment from World Rugby about Owen Farrell over a couple of weeks during our preparation for this tournament, a situation that went on and on, and there were lots of comments from World Rugby.

“I note there have not been very many comments from World Rugby – I’m told – in the last week or so.”

Farrell was sent off against Wales for a shoulder to the head of flanker Taine Basham – but a disciplinary panel overturned the decision, citing a late change in the dynamic around the tackle.

World Rugby then took the unusual step of appealing against that decision, and a second independent panel sided with the game’s governing body, saying clearing Farrell was “manifestly wrong” and ruling him out for four games, including England’s Rugby World Cup meetings with Argentina and Japan.

With George Ford at 10 in Farrell’s absence, England battled to victory over Argentina last Saturday, but World Rugby’s apparent light-touch handling of a series of similar high-tackle calls by officials has sparked debate.

France second row Taofifenua came under the microscope on Thursday evening, escaping with a yellow card for a high tackle against Uruguay. That was despite questions over whether there sufficient mitigating factors to avoid a red card, and whether mitigation should even have been applicable at all.

England's Tom Curry clashes heads with Argentina full-back Juan Cruz Mallia in an attempted tackle during the teams' Rugby World Cup pool-stage game
Tom Curry’s clash of heads with Argentina full-back Juan Cruz Mallia reduced England to 14 men from the third minute of their win over Argentina

Officials are obliged to send off players who hit high without making a legitimate attempt at a tackle. Farrell was ultimately decided to be ineligible for any mitigation given he led with the shoulder making no attempt to ‘wrap’ his arms around Basham.

The cases of New Zealand’s De Groot, who was shown red against Namibia, Chile’s Sigren, who was given a yellow card against Japan, and South Africa’s Kriel, whose tackle on Scotland’s Jack Dempsey went unpunished and uncited, have also prompted scrutiny.

England have picked up four red cards in their past six games, although one of those – Freddie Steward’s dismissal against Ireland – was later rescinded.

Borthwick insists his team’s recent streak of red cards are isolated incidents, rather than an indication of a lack of discipline.

“If you are talking about discipline we gave seven penalties away last week [against Argentina], so this is a disciplined team,” he said.

“What we have had are incidents that have meant cards have been issued against our team and we want 15 players on the pitch. That is very important.”

Borthwick hailed England’s fans in Marseille saying their support helped his team overcome their latest brush with officialdom when Tom Curry was shown a third-minute red card against Argentina.

“They recognised that void, stepped into it and became our 15th player. I thought they were absolutely incredible,” he said.

“I have been privileged to be involved in this team, in one way of another and with a couple of times away, since 2000. And that was as good as I have ever heard the English support.”

One of former captain Borthwick’s stints away from the England set-up was as Japan’s forwards coach between 2012 and 2015.

“I have a very strong link with Japan,” he said.

“I was very privileged to live in Tokyo for a couple of years. Japan is special place, and Japan team are a very special team. We know we are going to have defend exceptionally well, the ball movement of the Japan team is exceptional and they test you in ways that most other teams don’t.”

Steve Borthwick looks out over his Japan forwards
Borthwick was part of the Japan coaching staff that masterminded the Brave Blossoms famous upset of South Africa at the 2015 Rugby World Cup

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