Rob Baxter, Exeter’s director of rugby, has accused the game’s authorities of lacking empathy following the decision to ban two of his key forwards for the rest of the season. Dave Ewers and Sam Skinner have both received four-game suspensions and will miss Saturday’s Premiership semi-final against Sale.
The two players received a yellow and a red card respectively for making contact with the heads of opposing players during last weekend’s 20-19 regular season win over the Sharks.
Baxter feels they are the latest victims of an inconsistent and unfair disciplinary process and Damian Hopley, chief executive of the Rugby Players’ Association, has said his organisation also has “growing concerns” about the issue.
While Baxter has no problem with the aim of improving player safety generally, he believes the balance is in danger of swinging too far. “I am very disappointed,” said Baxter, upset that Ewers and Skinner will also be sidelined if Chiefs reach the Twickenham final on 26 June. “If I am honest, I am struggling with the whole process and everything about it a little bit. There is a huge amount of inconsistency and a lack of empathy for the players involved in the incidents.
“I definitely think it is getting to the stage that current players need to have a lot more input around making the laws and how they are refereed and cited. I’m not saying there isn’t a need to look at head contact, of course there is. But there are two sides to every process and it isn’t feeling like that at the moment.”
Ewers, 30, had never previously received a card of any colour for foul play in his lengthy career but the disciplinary panel still ruled there were no mitigating factors involved in his collision with Simon Hammersley and upgraded his yellow card to a four-match ban.
“There is a huge amount of inconsistency in the process,” said Baxter. “I think there really needs to be a move by the players playing the game to take a hold of this. I get a growing feeling among the players I talk to – not only at this club – that is something that is not far off happening. If you ask a lot of the players who are playing now, I don’t think they would agree with what is currently happening.”
Hopley confirmed the RPA were discussing the subject internally and Baxter believes the entire game faces an increasing dilemma. “Yes, we have to look after the guys who are potentially being high-tackled, but we also have to look after the guys where the high tackle might only be occurring because there is not a lot they can do,” said the Chiefs’ director of rugby. “Everyone has got a responsibility to tackle lower and safely … but rugby is an incredibly dynamic game with a lot of moving parts.”
The best chance of a solution, in Baxter’s opinion, is to consult the players. “Some would say they want these law changes because they say it protects them and protects their careers and their futures. Great, but they need to come out and say that. Or, if they actually believe the game is changing to a game they don’t like and don’t want they should say that. Their opinion needs to be heard.
“They are the most educated group of players we have ever had in the history of rugby union. So if some of them turn around and say: ‘I’m not sure if I like the way the game is going,’ they are not doing that from a position of ignorance. No one could claim that.”
In the absence of Ewers and Skinner, Chiefs expect to welcome back Scotland’s Jonny Gray for the Sale showdown, with Richard Capstick in line for promotion to the starting XV. The fit-again Jack Nowell is also available for selection in the match-day 23.