AT a time when everyone and anyone interested in the sport is on the same page with regard to minimising the risk of brain injury in rugby through strong refereeing, it is jaw-dropping that Six Nations disciplinary processes – certainly the communication of these processes – continue to confuse and divert from the key issue of player safety.
There is no credible argument against the three-match suspension, reduced to two matches if he attends a coaching intervention programme, imposed upon Grant Gilchrist on Monday following his red-carding for shoulder-to-head contact in a tackle on French flanker Anthony Jelonch during the previous Sunday’s Six Nations round three clash in Paris (although it did raise some eyebrows that the Scottish second-row with a previously unblemished disciplinary record got just one less week than Mohamed Haouas, who has history of dangerously reckless behaviour on the pitch and who dived round the side of a ruck to effectively execute a flying head-butt on Ben White).
What is hard to fathom is that it took the Six Nations disciplinary panel the best part of six days, from last Tuesday night when the hearing took place until Monday lunchtime when the ruling was eventually delivered, to stick their head above the parapet. That meant that Edinburgh’s game against Leinster on Saturday evening, which Gilchrist could theoretically have played in, came and went whilst he was awaiting his verdict. If he had played in that match, and it had counted as ‘meaningful’ to his ban, then the second-row would have been clear to play in Scotland’s final Six Nations outing against Italy a week on Saturday.
In contrast, Haouas’ suspension was delivered last Wednesday lunchtime, the day after his hearing. Why the discrepancy?
‘Justice delayed is justice denied’ is not quite the right legal maxim for this sort of situation, but the phrase seems to sum-up a crazy scenario whereby a ruling body appears to have buried its head in the sand rather than deal with the tricky question of what constitutes a ‘meaningful match’ inside the Six Nations window.
Frankly, any suggestion that the six day wait for a ruling was because it wasn’t possible to convene a meeting of the disciplinary panel to agree a verdict any sooner doesn’t cut the mustard for a multi-million pound business which relies on the integrity and credibility of the competition it promotes. A prerequisite of being on such a disciplinary panel must surely be availability to reach a judgement in a timely manner.
It’s not the first time Six Nations and/or World Rugby have got themselves in a tangle over this sort of stuff. We had a similar sort of farce after Zander Fagerson‘s red-card against Wales in 2021.
Scotland defence coach Steve Tandy is not the type of character to get embroiled such wrangling, but he didn’t mince his words earlier today when asked for his take on the situation – although he did also then expressed a desire to now look forward at the challenge which lies ahead when Ireland arrive at Murrayfield on Sunday.
“The length of time it took is pretty frustrating,” he said. “We had boys who were involved with France go back to play for the clubs last weekend [meaning Gilchrist could have done the same with Edinburgh], so there is that inconsistency and a bit of frustration with it, but it’s time now to park it and get ready to go again on Sunday.
“With these kinds of things, you can’t give it too much energy. We’ve got a massive game at the weekend which Grant wouldn’t have been available for anyway, so it is about really focussing and honing-in on what we need to do against Ireland.”
Tandy then explained that while it is a blow to lose a player who adds so much to the team in terms of work-rate, leadership and line-out prowess, there is enough strength in depth in the squad to ensure that this is not a crippling set-back.
“Grant is an outstanding line-out caller, but we’ve got Richie Gray, and John Dalziel as forwards coach does a fantastic job with the boys,” he reasoned. “We’ve also got Jonny Gray and Scott Cummings, who are experienced forwards, and Sam Skinner is an excellent caller. So, I think we’ve got plenty of armoury there to fill those slots.”
The Welshman also allayed fears about the fitness of talismanic stand-off Finn Russell, who played 80 minutes of Racing 92 against Toulouse on Sunday evening with a heavily strapped leg.
“Finn will be fine,” he asserted. “In these big games you’re always going to get banged up a little bit but the way the boys recover and with everyone working on it, he’ll be fine.”
Tandy added that Scotland will show this weekend’s opponents all the respect they have earned from climbing to the status of number one ranked team in the world, but stressed that his team should make no apologies about approaching the game believing they can win.
“We’re aware of what Ireland do, and we’ve definitely taken a keen interest in how they play, but, for us, the motivation is that we want to get better,” he explained. “We’ve produced some really positive performances in this campaign so far, but we believe there is more in us both sides of the ball, so if we can get better then we believe we can really challenge Ireland on Sunday.
“Ireland were a fantastic team under Joe Schmidt and Andy Farrell has kicked them on [since he took over as head coach following the 2019 World Cup]. They know exactly what their identity is and the way they want to play the game. Ultimately you don’t go to New Zealand and win Test series and get to number one in the world if you’re not an outstanding team. They’re very consistent and have a lot of experience in the team as well. So, we know the challenge that we’re facing on Sunday but it’s one we’re really excited about.”
Finally, Tandy explained that Scotland mustn’t rely on referee Luke Pearce coming down on their side when they take on a team who are masters of rugby’s dark arts.
“He [Pearce] referees the game really well and he’ll be hard on what he sees, but we’ve got to make sure that we’re really spot on in the contact area,” said Tandy. “We can’t leave it in the hands of others.
“We’ve got to look after what we do with our ball-carrying, contact-cleans and our defensive discipline, making sure we’re rolling away and being squeaky clean. We know the trends on refereeing and the way the game is going now so we have to make sure first and foremost that our house is in order.”