URC referees chief says onus is on players to change behaviour on high tackles

BKT United Rugby Championship referees’ boss Tappe Henning has said the onus is on coaches and clubs to change player behaviour around high tackles
URC referees chief says onus is on players to change behaviour on high tackles

SUSPENSION COMING: Connacht are bracing themselves for the potential fall-out caused by Bundee Aki’s sending off in South Africa at the weekend. Pic: Ashley Vlotman/Sportsfile

As Connacht brace themselves for the potential fall-out caused by Bundee Aki’s sending off in South Africa at the weekend, BKT United Rugby Championship referees’ boss Tappe Henning has said the onus is on coaches and clubs to change player behaviour around high tackles.

Whatever about Aki’s ill-judged reaction towards referee Gianluca Gnecchi following his sending-off for Connacht last Saturday, the actual incident that prompted the Italian official to brandish his red card in Stellenbosch was a reminder that despite the increased sanctions now enforced for contact made above the shoulder line, such incidents have not gone away.

The Ireland centre was red-carded after coming on as a replacement for Connacht against URC champions Stormers having made shoulder to head contact with Seabelo Senatla as the wing was crouched over Aki’s tackled team-mate John Porch.

Aki had made contact at high speed to clean out Senatla and left the Stormers head coach John Dobson fearing for his wing’s ability to play again this season after picking up shoulder and pectoral muscle damage from the illegal challenge.

Speaking on a media call, the URC head of match officials Tappe Henning was asked to address the continuing prevalence of head shots in the game and though he said player behaviour was changing, particularly with disciplinary hearings sanctioning player education courses in exchange for reduced suspensions, a further reduction in such incidents needed buy-in from coaches and clubs.

“There is evidence from World Rugby and it seems that there is an improvement. The success of the process doesn’t only lie in referees’ decisions on the day but also with the culture of the club and what the club stands for, the respecting of opponents and the integrity of the game and also the fairness of the game.

“So it is a combination of things that will change that and it does not only lie with refereeing decisions. It is also on the clubs to understand and enforce and develop techniques that are better to try and avoid head contact, through coaching and through seminars.

“We’ve seen that in recent times when a player has been involved in some foul play around the head, there was a recommendation from the disciplinary hearing for a player to attend a course for safety of tackles and stuff, the sanction is, not always, adjusted accordingly. So it’s a big effort from everybody to eradicate this from the game.

“It can’t only be dependent on match official decisions and disciplinary outcomes. We need our coaches and clubs to buy into it to change player behaviour.” 

Henning has also revealed a number of modifications for the new URC campaign he believes will enhance the standard and consistency of officiating in the league this season.

Chief among them is an Independent Selectors Panel of four retired international referees, including Ireland’s George Clancy and Nigel Owens of Wales, to refresh the officials’ performance review process and appoint and select the URC’s Elite Match Official Panel. The other members of the panel are South Africa’s Stuart Berry and Neil Paterson of Scotland.

Former Scotland hooker and current Romania assistant coach Stevie Scott has been appointed the URC Match Official Set-Piece Coach in a move to improve the scrum, lineout and maul understanding of match officials and also to measure and increase the accuracy of referees’ set-piece work and decision making.

Henning also said that referees and Television Match Officials would continue to be paired regularly for URC matches to enhance teamwork and consistency in the TMO decision-making process and that with more URC referees appointed to the TMO role, those pairings may also swap roles, with one official refereeing on a Friday night and then doing TMO on a Saturday.

Henning added he had been encouraged by the standard of officiating at the start of the 2022-23 campaign and said: “We would mark around about 7.5 to 8 of where we want to be. I am pleased to say there have been no real train smashes or big decisions that have influenced the outcome of games in a big way.

“Like the players, the referees always show a bit of rustiness. You need to get game-fit in your game and your observations. There will be errors and mistakes.

“But there was nothing major in the first two rounds to be upset or concerned about. It was already better in round two. So we are actually quite pleased where we are.”

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