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22nd Aug 2023

Owen Farrell gets tough ban as Billy Vunipola misses only one World Cup match

Patrick McCarry

Owen Farrell

The yellow that became a red that was rescinded, that was then reinstated.

Owen Farrell has been hit with a ban that will see him miss his country’s final World Cup warm-up and some matches at the upcoming tournament. Billy Vunipola has also been banned, but he got off lightly.

Farrell was initially yellow-carded in England’s defeat to Wales, in Cardiff, over a fortnight ago before that decision was upgraded to a red. He was then expected to cop a strict ban, as this would be his fourth such poor tackling offence, but an independent panel decided there were mitigating circumstances and freed him up to begin play ‘immediately’.

World Rugby waited until it received the ruling in full before taking the rare step of appealing that independent panel’s decision. There was another gathering held this morning [Tuesday, August 22] and Farrell was hit with a four-match ban. The ruling (in part) reads:

‘The Appeal Committee met on Tuesday, August 22 and unanimously determined that in the original hearing the Disciplinary Committee should have considered the attempt of the player to wrap his opponent in the tackle. This point did not feature in the original decision.

‘The failure to attempt to wrap was judged to be an important element of the Foul Play Review Officer’s (FPRO) report and had led to an upgrading of the referee’s yellow card to a red card during the match. As this element did not feature in the original decision, the Appeal Committee decided it was in the interests of justice to hear the case afresh on that key point alone, which included hearing from the player.

‘Following the review by the Appeal Committee of this key element, it was determined that the FPRO was correct in his decision leading to the red card. The Appeal Committee subsequently determined that the tackle was ‘always illegal’. When applying the terms of World Rugby’s Head Contact Process, no mitigation can be applied to a tackle that is ‘always illegal’.

‘The Appeal Committee therefore considered that the Disciplinary Committee’s decision to downgrade the red card to a yellow card had been manifestly wrong, which led to the Disciplinary Committee’s decision being overturned, the appeal brought by World Rugby being allowed, and the red card upheld.

‘In considering sanction, the Committee applied World Rugby’s mandatory minimum mid-range entry point for foul play resulting in contact with the head (six-matches). Taking all considerations into account, including the player’s acceptance of foul play, clear demonstration of remorse and his good character, the Committee agreed a four-match suspension.

‘The Appeal Committee accepted submissions on behalf of the player that the Ireland v England match on 19 August 2023, for which the player was voluntarily stood down would be included as part of the sanction.  Therefore, the suspension applies to the following matches:

  • Ireland v England             19 August 2023
  • England v Fiji                    26 August 2023
  • England v Argentina          9 September 2023
  • England v Japan               17 September 2023

Billy Vunipola effectively gets a two-match ban

Another England star going through the disciplinary process, on Tuesday, was Saracens back-row Billy Vunipola.

The No.8 was also yellow-carded for a high shot tackle – this time on Andrew Porter – and had his card upgraded to red after another TMO bunker review. His disciplinary record is cleaner than that of Owen Farrell [Saturday was his first ever red card] so he could expect a six-week ban to be cut in half, if all goes in his favour.

Indeed, that is what happened and Vunipola can get to play against Japan if he attends World Rugby’s safe tackling school [a video module]. The full ruling statement reads:

England number 8, Billy Vunipola, appeared before an independent judicial committee via video link having [received a red card/been cited] for an act of foul play contrary to Law 9.13 (A player must not tackle an opponent early, late or dangerously. Dangerous tackling includes, but is not limited to, tackling or attempting to tackle an opponent above the line of the shoulders even if the tackle starts below the line of the shoulders.) in the Summer Nations Series match between Ireland and England on Saturday 19th August 2023.

‘The independent Judicial Committee consisting of Roddy Dunlop KC – Chair (Scotland), Frank Hadden (Scotland) and Jamie Corsi (Wales) heard the case, considering all the available evidence and submissions from the player and his representative.

‘The player admitted that he had committed an act of foul play worthy of a red card.  

‘On that basis, the Committee applied World Rugby’s mandatory minimum mid-range entry point for foul play resulting in contact with the head.  This resulted in a starting point of a six week suspension.

‘Having acknowledged mitigating factors including his exemplary previous record, immediate apology and remorse, and noted the absence of any aggravating factors, the committee reduced the six week entry point by three weeks, resulting in a sanction of three weeks (to be served as the following given the player’s upcoming schedule):  

  • England v Fiji                  26 August 2023
  • England v Argentina        9 September 2023
  • England v Japan             17 September 2023

‘The Player may apply to take part in the Coaching Intervention Programme,’ the statement continues, ‘to substitute the final match of hissanction for a coaching intervention aimed at modifying specific techniques and technical issues that contributed to the foul play. Further information can be found here.

‘The player has the right of appeal within 48 hours of the issuing of the full written decision.’

Owen FarrellOwen Farrell and Billy Vunipola both had yellow cards upgraded to reds. (Credit: Sportsfile & Getty)

“Split-second decisions, things happen, people want to get us on the front foot and unfortunately mistakes like that happen,” England’s stand-in captain Courtney Lawes told Prime Video after England lost 29-10 to Ireland.

“People aren’t doing this on purpose, it’s not we need to just tackle lower. What more can you do? We’re not trying to hurt each other as I say, split-second decisions, sometimes mistakes happen. We’ve got to try and make the sport safe for everyone who plays and that’s why sanctions like this are put into place and we got a red card for it.”

Meanwhile, World Rugby are now set to go ahead with plans to have the TMO bunker in use for the World Cup.


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