For weeks on end, a veritable posse of law enforcers queued up to hammer the warning home, that dangerous tackles meant instant dismissal.
The watching world would see that gratuitous violence had no place in the game they supposedly play in heaven.
And then, less than half an hour into the second match of the tournament, Reece Hodge cast himself in the role of riding shotgun for Australia and thereby exposed the tough talk as so much hot air. The hissing sound came from the ‘High Tackle Sanction Framework’ going down like a lead balloon.
Instead of tackling Peceli Yato in full cry, Hodge hit the Fijian gladiator on the head with his shoulder and not the faintest attempt to make it remotely legitimate by using his arms. Under World Rugby’s guidelines, it demanded a straight red.
Instead, those in charge reacted almost as if it nothing untoward had happened. A yellow card would have been passing the buck except that the referee, Ben O’Keeffe of New Zealand, decided there was none to be passed.
To the uninitiated across the globe, millions of curious viewers oblivious to rugby’s complex laws would probably have wondered: ‘What kind of a game is this?’
In an age when the referee has two assistant referees, a TMO to watch his back and all manner of technological weaponry, there really is no excuse for justice not only being done but being seen to be done.
“This is the best-prepared group of match officials we’ve ever had,’’ World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper said.
And they’ll be supported by so much technology.’
How strange, then, that for all the gadgetry at his disposal, the TMO, the experienced English official Rowan Kitt, took no action.
Fiji captain Dominiko Waqaniburotu, baffled that Hodge had got off scot-free, asked O’Keeffe to ask Kitt to take a look. Apart from leaving Yato in a concussed condition, the foul robbed him of a try at a time when the Aussies were already in some trouble.
According to head coach Michael Cheika the TMO told O’Keeffe ‘the tackle was fine.’
The citing commissioner, John Montgomery of Scotland, has since decided it was nothing of the sort and that Hodge has a case to answer before an independent tribunal.
Had the same conclusion been reached 24 hours earlier, Fiji might easily have been celebrating a famous win and World Rugby’s chief sheriff, Alain Rolland, could have responded in one pithy sentence: “Don’t say we didn’t warn you.”
As the referees’ high performance manager, the former Ireland scrum-half said on the eve of the tournament: “’We have made it very clear what the high tackle framework is, how it operates but more importantly why it is there to protect the players.’’
Not clear enough to those who decided Hodge did nothing wrong. As for the protective bit, try telling a dazed Yato, unsure if he’ll play again in the tournament.
World Rugby, of course, is big on player welfare. As chairman Bill Beaumont says: ’’Player safety is very much at the top of our agenda.’’
Best of the opening weekend
The All Blacks reminding everyone that reports of their demise are nothing more than wishful thinking. The names may change, but the most precious hallmark of real champions remains a capacity to absorb pressure and launch long range tries from anywhere and everywhere.
Maybe World Rugby had some method to their apparent madness in making the deposed Six Nations champions their new No. 1 so soon after their Twickenham nightmare. Rory Best went the full distance, scored a try and didn’t lose a single throw. What more can a man do?
New Zealand’s first against South Africa, finished off by George Bridge, but engineered by a host of others, notably Ardie Savea and Beauden Barrett.
Cheslin Kolbe’s bewitching impression of a human pinball would have taken him to the solo try of the tournament, or any other if only Richie Mo’unga hadn’t got across and laid claim to be the spoilsport of the World Cup.
Paul Williams. A relative newcomer, the Kiwi consulted his TMO three times, the chats adding up to five minutes or so, but it was time well spent because they reached the right verdicts. And he had the common sense to see that Zane Kapeli’s tackle on a falling Anthony Watson during England’s fumbling win over Tonga warranted no action.
Sione Kalamafoni’s introductory rib-tickler on fellow Tongan Billy Vunipola under the Sapporo Dome. It had the rare effect of jamming England’s exocet into reverse gear.
Team of the weekend
Namibia consistency assured
His 1,000-1 outsiders having preserved their position right up there alongside New Zealand as the most consistent of all World Cup teams, Phil Davies now faces two of the toughest tests imaginable.
Namibia’s Welsh coach sends his mixture of journeymen professionals and enthusiastic amateurs into action against the neighbouring Springboks in Toyota. Eight days later, they bump into the All Blacks in Tokyo.
Just as the holders have never failed to lose any of 29 pool matches, so the African qualifiers have never won any of theirs. Losing to Italy on the outskirts of Osaka early yesterday ensured they duly made it 20 out of 20, still with just the one losing bonus point to show for their last five World Cups.
Conceding an average of 60 points a game, Namibia could be entitled to describe the latest result, 22-47, as a distinctly above-average one. By their standards, a 25-point margin amounts to not far from a pretty close-run thing.
Davies, brother-in-law of former cross-code fly-half Jonathan ‘Jiffy’ Davies, declared himself ‘really happy’ — a curious state of being.