On Wednesday, the Six Nations confirmed that Freddie Steward, the England fullback, has had his red card, which was awarded in Saturday’s Six Nations match against Ireland, overturned by an independent disciplinary committee. Steward was shown the red card just before halftime of the game in Dublin after his elbow made contact with Hugo Keenan’s head, resulting in Keenan playing no further part in the match. Ireland went on to win 29-16, securing a grand slam.
Steward claimed that he was bracing himself for impact and had no time to take avoiding action, but referee Jaco Peyper deemed otherwise, saying that there were no mitigating factors and that he had no option but to send Steward off “in the current climate.” The committee, however, found that there were mitigating factors, notably “the late change in the dynamics and positioning of the opposing player.”
The committee did not uphold the red card and said that it should have been a yellow card instead. Therefore, Steward is free to play immediately. The committee recognized that match officials are required to make decisions under pressure and in the heat of a live match environment.
Referees are given a clear framework to work through after a head contact, including any mitigating circumstances, which usually relate to the tackled player entering contact low. This process is part of the game’s ongoing efforts to reduce head contacts, given the legal action taken by a large group of former players claiming the governing bodies did not do enough to protect them from potential brain injury.
Initially, Steward was punished for a breach of Law 9.13, relating to a late or dangerous tackle. However, the hearing decided that he should be charged with breaching Law 9.11, which states that players must not do anything that is reckless or dangerous to others, including leading with the elbow or forearm or jumping into or over a tackler.
At the time of the sending off, Ireland was leading 10-6, and the red card was heavily criticized by pundits. Former England scrum-half and BBC pundit Matt Dawson commented that Steward had been punished despite stepping, slowing, and turning to get out of the contact area. He described the decision as a mockery and an utter farce. Former England captain Will Carling also criticized the decision, stating that Steward had a split second to react to a man running at him and that there was no intent, and he was merely protecting himself.