Michael Cheika picked a fight with the World Cup organisers yesterday over their banning of Reece Hodge, adamant that Australia had been singled out for special treatment.
In an extraordinary outburst on the contentious high tackle issue, the Wallabies’ former Leinster head coach claimed that Hodge’s three-week suspension put his squad under a siege mentality ahead of tomorrow’s probable pool decider against Wales.
“I do not particularly want to talk about this today because there is a part of it which is us versus everyone else,” Cheika said.
“We know that and we are not going to let it derail us. We are not going to let them get to us.
“No-one in the team believes that what Reece did met the red card threshold.
“We will suck it up and get focused on what is important – the match on Sunday.
“We’ll just concentrate on our footy.
“We have talked about an appeal with the players. I am with them. I am as disappointed as Reece is but no obstacle will derail us.
“I do not care what World Rugby is doing. I can tell you right now if there is one bloke they are not going to listen to, it’s me, no matter what language I speak to them in. I am respected by my players and together we will battle away.”
Hodge’s shoulder first, no-arms tackle on Peceli Yato last Saturday provoked an outrageous reaction over the collective failure of the officials to take any action against the Wallaby wing over an incident which demanded an immediate on-field review via the TMO, Rowan Kitt of England.
Instead the referee, New Zealander Ben O’Keeffe, let Hodge off scot-free, leaving the citing commissioner to put him in the dock four days later.
Fiji, angry at losing one of their best players to concussion because of an illegal hit, called for action over an incident ‘not in the spirit of the game.’ The failure to take decisive action at the time and other controversies over off-sides provoked World Rugby to take the unprecedented move of publicly criticising the performance of their officials over the opening weekend. It made a mockery of the pre-tournament vow that dangerous tackles would be punished by instant dismissal irrespective of whether they were made accidentally and without malice.
After 13 matches, only one player has been sent off – America’s Irish flanker John Quill for a shoulder to Owen Farrell’s chin which left the referee, Australia’s Nic Berry, no choice. Alarmingly, four players have been cited for red-card offences missed by various referees – Hodge, Cardiff Blues’ Samoan centre Rey Lee-Lo, his hooker team-mate Motu Matu’u and England’s Piers Francis.
Incredibly, Francis’ high hit on an American opponent was not considered serious enough for the referee or TMO to take a look at the video evidence. Had they done so, England might have had to play virtually the entire match with 14 men. An independent three-man tribunal found Hodge guilty as charged but cut the maximum sentence from six weeks to three because of Hodge’s previous exemplary record.
In their written judgement, the tribunal referred to Hodge saying that he was not aware of World Rugby’s ‘Framework for High Tackles’ and that he had not had any relevant coaching.
Emerging from his self-styled bunker bristling with a sense of injustice, Cheika said: ’’I want to make a couple of points. The framework is for referees, not the players, to decide whether there are red or yellow cards in a game. The officials are using that framework very well in matches.
“Our players are coached to tackle in the middle. We do not need the framework to tell them how to tackle.
“He (Hodge) is already nervous enough as it is. When people are asking you questions and you have done nothing wrong, you are nervous and may not have the answers to all the questions on the tip of your tongue.
Cheika’s opposite number in Tokyo tomorrow, Warren Gatland, made it clear that Wales, like every other qualifier, had been fully informed on the dangerous tackle protocols.
“We have all been briefed on the high tackles,” Gatland said. “We had a briefing in Wales before the World Cup about how it was going to be refereed and viewed. I do feel for players because you can get yourself in an awkward position and you end up making a high tackle.
“You could get sent off and it could cost your team the game or you could miss a few games. In the heat of battle some players can make a mistake so we do need a little bit of sympathy but we are continually driving that message to our players about discipline. I do feel for Reece. You saw the incident in real time and it didn’t look like much but then you slow it down to replays and it does look a bit more sinister. He’s been unfortunate and got a ban. Hopefully, he does get some more game- time in this World Cup.”
Where Australia and Wales go in the quarter-finals will be decided tomorrow, for better or worse. The winner will expect to top the pool and thereby dodge England in the last eight by clinching a quarter-final against France or Argentina instead.