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Saturday 4 February 2023 Dublin: 7°C
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'We don't want to go down the line of other sports where play-acting is rewarded'
Leo Cullen says it’s important rugby strikes a balance between being a safe game and one which retains its values.

A PERENNIAL DEBATE, it seems, but the issues of dangerous play and player safety have perhaps never been as vehemently discussed as they have in recent weeks.

A series of incidents and comments — most notably Will Spencer’s red card, Geordan Murphy’s subsequent interview and Dominic Ryan’s concussion-enforced retirement — have shone the spotlight firmly on the laws of the game, and the way rugby is being officiated.

Wasps v Leicester Tigers - Gallagher Premiership - Ricoh Arena David Davies Will Spencer's red card sparked huge debate. David Davies

Murphy has since retracted his claims that ‘the game has gone too PC’ after Spencer was sent off for a dangerous tackle on Wasps hooker Tommy Taylor last weekend, but it only served to highlight the different interpretations of the law and the grey areas which exist. 

The argument is that the laws around contact with the head — designed to protect both the ball-carrier and tackler and reduce the risk of concussion — have made it difficult for taller players to tackle effectively without risking yellow or red cards, and in Spencer’s case yellow would have been sufficient given there was no malice or intention.

World Rugby had responded to the spike in head injuries by trialling a new law which lowers the level of legal tackles to nipple height, but Leinster head coach Leo Cullen — while maintaining player safety is paramount — believes there must be leniency shown towards the tackler if it is accidental.

“It is a difficult one to say with absolute clarity because what’s the mitigating factors in any situation?” he said yesterday. “How much mitigation does the referee…I mean what sort of leniency is he allowed in terms of making decisions? I think there has to be a little bit of sympathy if something is accidental, would be my view.

“But then on the other hand that sometimes does create confusion because players want to have a consistency of message but, and there is a big ‘but’ there, it is very hard to say because you need to show me the examples and then we can make some decisions based on those.”

In apologising for his comments in the heat of the moment, Murphy said the Spencer red card could be a ‘watershed’ moment for rugby as the focus on concussion and player welfare intensifies, and one of the solutions suggested is to introduce a black card.

The game’s grey area — highlighted at the Ricoh Arena last weekend when Ian Tempest was left with no option but to brandish red despite Spencer carrying no malice into the tackle — means officials need an alternative between yellow and red for reckless play. 

While he hasn’t given the introduction of a black card much thought, Cullen says Leinster are doing a huge amount of work around tackle technique as there is now an onus on players and coaches to adapt to the laws.  

“We want to have a safe game,” he continued. “We have to be open enough to understand there are some problems in or around concussions, or maybe it’s concerns. We know that ourselves as a club and we do a huge amount of work now with players around their tackle technique.

“A lot of information came back from some of the underage games, making sure we get better technique down the line to make the game as safe as it possibly can be. That’s for World Rugby in terms of them safeguarding the game, it’s a huge role they have.

“For us, we have to be able to adapt to that and it’s something we’ve been very conscious of. The contact part of the game is what makes the game very special but we have to make sure it’s a safe as possible as well.”

With an increased zero-tolerance approach from referees, there is always the danger of players taking advantage of the laws to ensure opponents are penalised, but Luke McGrath insists it is not something that would ever enter his thought-process on the field.

Leo Cullen Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Leo Cullen speaking at yesterday's pre-match press conference. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

“Sometimes scrum-halves do milk penalties with players rolling out the back, trying to fall over them,” the Ireland international says. “And you obviously don’t want to see that coming into the game too much. But I don’t know if I have the answer for you. You don’t want the game going down that road, definitely not. Hopefully it won’t. That’s why these laws are coming in, trying to stop it.

“I certainly wouldn’t be trying to milk a penalty and try to get someone sent off. It’s a recognition that something has to be done in the sport.”

Cullen agrees, explaining that coaches are in constant dialogue with the Pro14′s head of referees, Craig Garner, to ensure everyone is on the same page and that there is an understanding as to what referees are looking to clamp down on. 

“Rugby is a complicated game,” the head coach said. “There are 20 people in this room and you might not get 20 similar opinions. Even we were struggling to get consensus on an incident when we were talking about it. It’s hard but in many ways that is the beauty of the game as well.

“We have constant dialogue with the referee manager so we just understand. We get feedback after every game, give our opinion and try to go through the appropriate channels.

“We try to give feedback too; ‘This is what we see, this is the way that we are interpreting the rules, can we have some feedback from you guys as to what you’re seeing or is there something we’re not doing right, or are you not happy with something we’re not doing?’

“So that’s what we do, we try to help the process, to help the spectacle become better because we don’t want to see cynical behaviour or what you’re talking about, which is rugby values because it’s important that we’re still instilling the right values in the game because that’s what the game should be, it shouldn’t be about play-acting.

“So if we’re seeing guys play-acting we’ll point it out and say, ‘Is this the behaviour that you want?’ and generally it’s not.

“So if there are one or two individuals that we see are out there, we might say, ‘Will you keep an eye on this guy because this is what we’re seeing in his previous three or four games’, whether he’s trying to milk a penalty or he’s doing something ugly around the ruck or whatever, we just don’t really want that in the game.

“So as coaches, we need to try to help that process along behind the scenes and say, ‘This is what we’re seeing, what do you see? Do you agree with us, what are you going to do about it?’

“The rugby values piece is important and that gets pushed by the referee managers. We want to have a game that is played in good values because that’s the beauty of our game. We don’t want to go down the line of other sports maybe where play-acting is rewarded.”

The performance of referee Dan Jones will be under huge scrutiny later this evening when Leinster host Cockerill’s Edinburgh at the RDS [KO 7.35pm, eir Sport/Premier Sport] in the wake of the Englishman’s damning appraisal of the standard of officiating last week. 

Josh van der Flier celebrates scoring a try with Jack Conan, Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw Dan Sheridan / INPHO Leinster are bidding to make it back-to-back home wins tonight. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Although he has made nine changes to his side, and left a host of Scottish internationals at home, Cockerill has loaded his pack with heavy-hitters, leaving Leinster in no doubt as to what is coming down the tracks.

The Scottish outfit were uber-physical in their defeat of Connacht at Murrayfield last time out and with the weather set to be wild and windy at the RDS later, the visitors are preparing to throw everything at the Pro14 and European champions.

Having played under Cockerill at Leicester Tigers, Cullen is familiar with his opposition number and is under no illusions of the size of the task facing his side tonight.

“They are a physical team, very direct and very confrontational,” the former second row continued. “That was also part of the Leicester team I was, it was in their DNA in the forwards, but they [Edinburgh] have plenty of creativity as well. 

“Cockers has made a huge amount of progress at Edinburgh which we all thought would be the case when we looked at his arrival. He is strong in the fundamentals of the game and the physical confrontation part of the game.

“They’ve got some big bodies there. It is a bigger front five than they had last week.”

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Leinster, meanwhile, have made a number of changes of their own with James Lowe coming in to the team and the likes of James Tracy, Michael Bent and Devin Toner drafted into the pack. 

Cullen has retained the same back row in Max Deegan, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan, with the fit-again Dan Leavy held in reserve on the bench, while Johnny Sexton will win his 150th appearance for the province in a half-back pairing with McGrath. 

It will be a stern test of Leinster’s credentials as they look to build further momentum after last week’s win over Dragons, with Cullen targeting intensity and accuracy in performance from his side. 

“The way the conferences are as well, they are one of our big rivals because we are up against them when it comes to league points,” he added. “It’s a very important game for us.” 

Leinster:

15. Jordan Larmour
14. Fergus McFadden
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. James Lowe
10. Johnny Sexton (captain)
9. Luke McGrath

1. Cian Healy
2. James Tracy
3. Michael Bent
4. Devin Toner
5. James Ryan
6. Max Deegan
7. Josh van der Flier
8. Jack Conan

Replacements:

16. Seán Cronin
17. Peter Dooley
18. Tadhg Furlong
19. Mick Kearney
20. Dan Leavy
21. Jamison Gibson-Park
22. Ross Byrne
23. Joe Tomane

Edinburgh:

15. Dougie Fife
14. Jamie Farndale
13. Chris Dean
12. Juan Pablo Socino
11. Duhan van der Merwe
10. Jaco van der Walt
9. Sean Kennedy

1. Allan Dell
2. Ross Ford
3. Simon Berghan
4. Fraser McKenzie (captain)
5. Ben Toolis
6. Luke Hamilton
7. Jamie Ritchie
8. Magnus Bradbury

Replacements:

16. Dave Cherry
17. Pierre Schoeman
18. Murray McCallum
19. Callum Hunter-Hill
20. Luke Crosbie
21. Nathan Fowles
22. Simon Hickey
23. James Johnstone

Referee: Dan Jones [WRU]. 

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