In terms of discipline the Rugby World Cup is slightly different to competitions such as the Six Nations or Super Rugby because World Rugby retains the responsibility for the disciplinary process rather than delegating it to the underlying Unions and Competitions.
World Rugby has spent a huge amount of time training Citing and Disciplinary Officers, which will hopefully mean greater consistency in application. This is the first Rugby World Cup to feature the “enhanced” disciplinary process, which came about after the review of the functioning of the process during the World Cup in 2015.
It is intended that this enhanced process will ensure better alignment with match officials (fewer on-field decisions overruled) and a greater emphasis on ‘rugby empathetic’ outcomes.
So how will it function in reality?
As always, a disciplinary hearing will automatically take place for all red cards issued, and for players cited for foul play. Every match will have a neutral Citing Officer, who will have 36 hours from the end of the match to issue a citing. Teams will have 12 hours from the end of the match to refer specific incidents to the Citing Officer for review. Teams are unlikely to do this.
As soon as there is a requirement for a disciplinary hearing, it will be convened, taking place no later than 48 hours after the end of the match.
These timescales are incredibly tight in order to ensure minimum disruption to teams, given travelling times and tight schedules in Japan. It is World Rugby’s intention is to publish the decision from each hearing immediately that hearing concludes.
One significant point worth noting before we go any further into this: World Rugby continues to place huge emphasis on high tackles and protecting the head, and has published the very clear high tackle sanction framework in support of this.
The Laws have recently been revised to make it mandatory for the TMO to be involved in red card decisions when a referee is using that framework. The World Cup also has the use of Hawkeye technology during matches to support on-field decision making. I am anticipating that there will be at least a few controversial decisions, but hopefully, whilst we may not always agree, at least the decision making process should be clear.
As with all competitions, the Disciplinary Committee at each hearing is made up of a Judicial Officer, who is usually a lawyer, and two panel members, who are usually former coaches, players and / or referees. During this World Cup, amongst others, Frank Hadden, the former Scotland coach, Olly Kohn, a former Welsh international and Leon Lloyd, a former English international, are involved. This is, in part, to make the process more ‘empathetic’ to the sport.
The player in question is usually accompanied by a lawyer, the team manager, and possibly other support personnel. This is where I believe one of the big flaws in the process used to lie – Tier 1 teams are able to afford much better legal representation than Tier 2 teams. However, this has been mitigated in part by World Rugby appointing some independent lawyers to provide judicial support for the Tier 2 nations during the World Cup.
When the hearing convenes, the player in question has the choice of admitting guilt or not. It is worth remembering that pleading not guilty may well have an impact on any sanction. If the player pleads not guilty, the Committee will review the evidence, which can include video, notes from the match officials, and witness statements. The Committee has the option of finding the player guilty, or of overturning the red card / citing, in which case the player is free to play. This applies even if the Committee believes that the incident merited a yellow card. If the player pleads guilty, the hearing moves straight onto determining the length of sanction.
When deciding on the sanction, the first decision which the Committee must make is to agree the entry level of the offence. This ranges from low-end, mid-range, top-end and maximum. The entry level dictates the starting point for the sanction – all of this is set out in the sanctions table published by World Rugby. Various factors are taken into account when determining this, including the nature of the incident and the manner in which the offence was committed; the part of the body used (elbow, hand etc.); any provocation; if the action was self-defence and the effect on the other player – were injuries caused? The Committee then takes into account aggravating and mitigating factors, which may include the disciplinary record of the player in question; if there is a need for a deterrent – either for the individual or for the type of incident; remorse; culpability; conduct at the hearing and any off-field factors, as considered relevant and appropriate by the Committee.
The final sanction is then calculated – the original sanction, plus any aggravation, minus any mitigation. The sanction is described in ‘weeks’, but in practice tends to mean matches. I’m not sure how that will be described if teams have more than one match in a week, as is entirely possible during the World Cup – it could become interesting!
Players are able to appeal the decisions and the sanctions reached by the Disciplinary Committees. It is anticipated that appeal hearings will take place within 24 hours of completion of the original disciplinary hearing. Appeals are generally based on whether or not the incident is red card worthy; but more often they challenge the entry level of the incident, and therefore the sanction applied.
The final point to note is that Citing Officers are able to issue CCWs (Citing Commissioner Warnings). These have been used more in the southern hemisphere than the northern, and are issued for incidents which are not quite deemed red card worthy, but which are more serious than just a yellow card. If a player accumulates more than one of these, it is possible that a Disciplinary hearing would be convened, and a sanction applied.
The above is all theoretical – how it will function in practice is yet to be determined but we will undoubtedly see it in action in the coming weeks, along with the controversies and discussions that always follow closely behind.