Retiring Kiwi referee Glen Jackson sympathised with the officials at last year’s Rugby World Cup and said World Rugby did not adequately exercise its crackdown on high tackles before the tournament in Japan.
The opening weeks of the World Cup were dominated by controversy amid confusion surrounding the game’s interpretation of the high tackle and how it should be policed.
There were several, hotly debated incidents in the pool stage which led to outrage among players, coaches, fans and media.
The seven-week tournament broke the World Cup’s previous record for red cards when it was only 15 days old.
World Rugby released its new framework for high tackles in May, four months before the World Cup, but chaos reigned as the start of the tournament was impacted by a wave of cards and pedantic Television Match Officials (TMOs) scrutinising too many incidents, leading to long, tedious delays when officials seemed confused themselves.
“World Rugby, referees and the game have a responsibility to protect people,” Jackson said.
“But, in terms of the showcase, it wasn’t well exercised before the tournament and the first half was reasonably hard for everyone.”
There were also glaring inconsistencies from one high tackle to the next and the on-field, audible conversations between referees, touch judges and TMOs emphasised an evident lack of understanding of the new interpretations.
Jackson, who last week announced he was retiring from refereeing in March, was a surprise omission from the panel selected for rugby’s showpiece event after being one of New Zealand’s top referees for the best part of a decade.
The 44-year-old said the World Cup’s high tackle debate was “extremely challenging” for the referees, who were even issued a public warning when the game’s governing body said their performances from the opening weekend were not up to scratch.
World Rugby wants to make the game safer as collisions get heavier with the dangers of concussion more apparent than ever. However, the understanding of what was legal and what was a red card was blurred.
Players were seemingly still getting to grips with new high tackle laws when there were only four months to adjust, or possibly change technique and habits for potentially the most important event of their careers.
World Rugby implemented its new guidelines for the “Decision-Making Framework for High Tackles” last May.
“The guideline is intended to improve consistency in application of sanctions by distinguishing between dangerous tackles that warrant a penalty, yellow card or red card,” World Rugby said.
“The framework also supports protection of the head of both players by consistently and frequently sanctioning the tackle behaviour that is known to be the highest risk.”
But incidents like Samu Kerevi’s forearm, which lifted up into the throat of Wales first five-eighth Rhys Patchell in what was essentially a strong carry, mystified onlookers when he was penalised in the controversial pool match between Australia and Wales.
A frustrated Kerevi said afterwards he “might as well join the NRL” and his captain Michael Hooper suggested to French referee Romain Poite: “So you can’t run into the tackle any more?”
Then Wallabies coach Michael Cheika was also enraged, saying: “As a former rugby player, I am embarrassed by that. Administrators are spooking the referees. They’ve become ultra-cautious”.
However, the flashes of cards eased up as the tournament’s best sides clashed in the quarterfinals. The message was taken on board as the crackdown on high tackles forced players to take extra caution.
“It got better during the tournament but it was a difficult couple of weeks for everyone involved,” Jackson said.
“Thank goodness, at the pinnacle end of it, it all sorted itself out.”
Technically, last year’s World Cup was still the dirtiest in history (eight reds and 28 yellow) but there was no controversy or cards to speak of at the tournament’s sharp end as South Africa lifted the Webb Ellis Cup for a third time.