Former England captain Will Carling was left stunned by the decision to send Freddie Steward off during England’s Six Nations clash with Ireland.
Steward was dismissed just before half-time for knocking Hugo Keenan on the head with his elbow despite trying to avoid a collision. Steward had turned to brace for Keenan, who was in an unnatural position with the whistle blown, and accidentally made contact with his head. The Ireland full back left the field for a head injury assessment which he failed, forcing him out of the rest of the game.
Ireland were heavy favourites to seal a grand slam in Dublin against an England side who had suffered an historic defeat to France at Twickenham just last week. But, Steve Borthwick’s men started strongly at the Aviva Stadium and only trailed 10-6 at the time of the incident. Following the sending off Ireland went on to win 29-16.
“Steward had a split second to react - after a knock on - to a man running at him,” Carling wrote on Twitter following the sending off.
“Of course his instinct should be to make himself as vulnerable as possible - there was no intent - he was protecting himself - what a bloody joke.
“Massive congratulations to Ireland on their grand slam, completely deserved. Hugely frustrated that we did not get the chance to see England take them on with a full team. Such a poor decision.
“Would love to ask the referee and the media pundits who said it was a red card, the simple question. With Keenan off balance and running right at him, what was Freddie Steward meant to do to avoid that collision?”
Other ex-professionals echoed Carling’s thoughts with former England scrum-half Matt Dawson saying: "The officials are showing a lack of understanding of the game.
"I can’t disagree with how the contact is a red card but it is the context of how it went to that contact,
"He is stepping and slowing and turning to get out of the contact area and has been punished by being sent off. It is a mockery. He was doing his utmost to avoid any kind of contact. It is an utter farce."
Former Ireland international, Brian O’Driscoll, disagreed though saying that referee Jaco Peyper came to the correct decision.
“There is a duty of care on the defender that he can’t lead with a shoulder like that.” He said, “He catches him square in the head and Jaco Peyper probably came to the right decision, albeit it’s a really tough one to take.
“We have got a duty of care to players. We are trying to protect the game. The reality is a player has got whacked in the head and is probably not going to come back.”
Dangerous tackles are just one area where refereeing is becoming stricter in World Rugby’s efforts to reduce head injuries. The sporting body along with England’s Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union are facing legal action from more than 200 ex-professional players who say they were not sufficiently protected from brain injuries in the sport. By contrast, there is growing criticism around concerns that red card punishments are deciding the outcome of matches.
The decision also drew buzz on social media with England cricket captain Ben Stokes calling it ‘a shambles.’ Following the match England captain Owen Farrell said Steward’s red card "seemed harsh", before adding: "It’s not for me to have an opinion on. They made the rules for a reason, that’s all I can say on it."