In the days following the All Blacks’ loss to the Springboks in the Rugby World Cup final, there has been much scrutiny directed toward referee Wayne Barnes and Television Match Official (TMO) Tom Foley for the upgrade of Sam Cane’s yellow card to red.
However, for instances of foul play, like Cane’s yellow card, the decision as to whether a card is upgraded or not does not lie with the referee or the TMO, it lies with the Foul Player Review Bunker and a Foul Play Review Official (FPRO).
What is a FPRO, and how is it different from a TMO?
According to World Rugby: “Referees will remain the lead decision-maker during matches but will now have the ability to refer any foul play incident where a red card is not clear and obvious following two big screen replays, to the Foul Play Review Official located in the ‘Bunker’ for formal review.
“If the officiating team is unable to determine whether an incident warrants a red card, but does meet at least a yellow card threshold, the referee will cross their arms, signalling a formal review, and the player will leave the field for 10 minutes as per the current sin-bin laws. The Foul Play Review Official will then have up to eight minutes to review the incident using all footage produced by the independent host broadcaster (World Rugby) and technology, including Hawk-Eye split screen and zoom technology, to determine the outcome.
“The Foul Play Review Official will then communicate the decision back to the officials in the stadium. The referee will either uphold the yellow card and enable the player to return, or award a red card whereby the player stays off the field and is unable to be replaced. All decisions will be communicated via the big screen in stadia and via broadcast graphics.”
So the difference between the Foul Play Review Official and a TMO is that their role allows for play to continue and make a decision around whether the offence is deemed to warrant a red card.
In the case of the final, the Bunker was situated 15km away from the ground at Roland Garros.
Who was the FPRO for the Rugby World Cup final?
Here is where an element of guesswork and deduction comes into play.
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It is not clear who made the decision, but the FPRO is taken from the group of TMOs in the World Cup team of officials. Marius Jonker (South Africa) and Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand) were ineligible, so it was likely one of Brian MacNeice (Ireland), Ben Whitehouse (Wales), Brett Cronan (Australia) and Joy Neville (Ireland).
Referee Wayne Barnes shows Sam Cane the red card during the World Cup final. Photo / Photosport
Were the decisions by the FPRO correct?
It was TMO Foley who spotted Sam Cane’s tackle on South Africa’s Jesse Kriel and he deemed it an easy decision for Barnes to brandish the yellow card, as it met the threshold of “direct head contact”.
What wasn’t so clear was whether it met the red card threshold and this is where the eight-minute countdown begins and the FPRO comes in.
Under World Rugby’s “Head Contact Process” law application, that nameless FPRO came back with the decision that there was a “high degree of danger, and no mitigation”.
The call is, by the painstaking letter of the law, correct. However, one could argue a degree of mitigation in the fact that Kriel was bent over when the contact happened and there was minimal force in the contact, although the law states there needs to be a “sudden/significant” drop in height. You can see Kriel barely moves with the hit, is not driven backwards and didn’t require a head injury assessment (HIA).
Cane was also wrapping his arms in the tackle, so it wasn’t a shoulder charge. Definitely yellow, but perhaps if another FPRO had been in the chair, it may have snuck under the red threshold.
All Blacks legend Sean Fitzpatrick reluctantly agreed: “In real time, it’s a red card, we have to get on with it.”
The second debatable call by the FPRO was the decision not to upgrade Springboks captain Siya Kolisi’s yellow card to red after his head-to-head clash with Ardie Savea.
What worked in Kolisi’s favour was that there was judged to have been a “change in dynamics in the tackle” - another player entering the contact - which there was, as it was Duane Vermeulen who made the first hit.
Also, Kolisi’s first contact was with Savea’s shoulder, then the head, and he had bent his hips a lot more than Cane had.
Again, you’d have to say it was the right call - but certainly contentious, as we’ve seen plenty similar upgraded to red or even given as red on the spot.
Will Toogood is an online sports editor for the NZ Herald. He has previously worked for Newstalk ZB’s digital team and at Waiheke’s Gulf News, covering sport and events.
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