Italy v Scotland: Townsend calls for clarity after van der Merwe suspension

Scotland head coach says he has been left scratching his head at winger's dismissal and subsequent three-match ban

Gregor Townsend
Gregor Townsend has still to decide on two or three places in his Scotland team to face Argentina. Image: © Craig Watson -

GREGOR TOWNSEND says he has been left confused by the sending-off and subsequent suspension of Duhan van der Merwe which has ruled the Scotland winger out of Saturday’s match against Italy in Rome, and he has called on World Rugby to provide clarity on how such incidents should be handled by referees and disciplinary panels.

Van der Merwe was red-carded whilst playing club rugby for Worcester Warriors against London Irish last Saturday after he attempted to fend off fellow Scotland squad member Kyle Rowe and ended up making contact with his opponents jaw/neck area with his forearm. Rowe was not injured and the incident only came to light after being highlighted by the Television Match Official.

“I was really disappointed with the decision at the time, and I’ve been scratching my head ever since,” said the Scotland coach. “We’re allowed to hand-off in the game of rugby, it’s in the law book and something we do from a young age. It’s something which is celebrated.

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“So, you’re allowed to put your hand in someone’s face, in the head area, so for someone to attempt that at high speed against another player who is going at high speed, who is upright trying to tackle him, and execute it in the end but on the way to doing that his forearm touches that player’s face … the fine margin for that, from something which would have been celebrated as a great hand-off, to be sent off from the game and you are not going to play for three weeks, is ridiculous in my view.

“And it is something that World Rugby need to come out with a statement [on] and make a distinction between something which is legal and encouraged in the game, and not put attempted hand-offs in the same criteria as a high-tackle or a dangerous ruck clear.

“They followed the head contact process, but I think that is wrong in this situation. We should be protecting the attacking player in a circumstance like that when he is up against someone trying to tackle him upright.

“So, obviously we’re disappointed for Duhan. He’s very upset. But we’ll move on, and Kyle [Steyn – who has replaced van der Merwe in the starting XV] will go and grab his opportunity.

“But I have real questions about the game and what we’re trying to do here, when a hand-off to the face is allowed and encouraged.”


Meanwhile, Blair Kinghorn – who has covered stand-off and back-three from the bench in Scotland’s three matches so far during this campaign – was perhaps the front-runner to take van der Merwe’s place, but he is unavailable.

It’s personal, so he is just unavailable for this game – we believe he will be available for Ireland,” said Townsend.

“But Kyle [Steyn] has been waiting for this opportunity for a while. He played really well against Tonga and scored four tries, he played really well off the bench against Australia, but then didn’t play after that.

“He is someone who is very popular in our squad and very diligent, so we are 100 percent backing him to play well this week and grab his opportunity again.

Townsend also explained that the decision not to select Mark Bennett in the match-day 23 was at least partially related to the centre taking blows to his ribs on consecutive weekends.

“He got a whack in his ribs for the second week running against France so he wasn’t able to train with us last week and he was being managed this week,” said the coach. “He probably would have been fit and available to play, but we just felt with that injury and given the recurrence, that was one factor why he wasn’t in the squad this week. 

“We feel for him because he played really well when he came off the bench, but we’re hoping by next week he’ll be closer to 100 percent fit and available for selection again. “

About David Barnes 4030 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.


  1. This is becoming farcical. According to the citing Committee, even if the initial contact is with the palm, any second or third contact in the same movement that involves contact to the head is an offence with the same entry point as striking. How can that be correct? So imagine the initial fend is hand to face.therefore legal, but the defender keeps coming, perhaps has hold of the attacker and the wrist then makes contact with the face..its now a red card offence..

  2. Nice to get some really straightforward info from Townsend re selections, though like to know his thinking re Hastings …

    Totally agree with hiw re Duhan, as does everyone else apart from World Rugby …

  3. We need to do all we can to reduce impact to players heads but Toony has a point. He’s went for a hand off but unfortunately he’s made contact with his forearm. Kyle Rowe is partly to blame for this, his tackle technique should also come with some sort of sanction like he’s rolled off the pitch for 5 or 10 minutes. Decisions made on and off the pitch will lise fans.

    • “He’s went for a hand off but unfortunately he’s made contact with his forearm.”

      This is no different from an attempt on a legal tackle where a mistake is made and unfortunately the tackler makes contact with the head. The bottom line is no matter how well intentioned you are if you make contact with the head at force you are likely to get a red card.

  4. It’s pretty obvious that it was the third contact before the palm of his hand made contact, the first two were the side of his wrist/forearm. Maybe he tried to hand him off, but he didn’t.

  5. I don’t understand the rules anymore. That to me has mitigation written all over it. The tackler is high. Below the waist is where he should be aiming. The hand off would not have happened if that had been the case. The root cause here is the tackler…not VDM.

    To me its accidental as a result of circumstance. It is not a red…that’s just nonsense.

  6. It feels like in an attempt to achieve consistency WR have imposed all kinds of rigid directives that remove common sense. That might be ok if we were actually getting consistency, but we’re seeing the same hand off being anything from no pen no citation, to red card and miss 2 test matches.

  7. The rule for tackle is lower than shoulders!
    A french under 20 v Scotland was sent off red card because he came standing high for a tackle on Robin McLintock!
    To me it is the risk of the tackler to go high and should be penalised.

  8. Townsend has a point. Bigger did a straight arm hand-off on Price’s face without anyone commenting or complaining in the Wales game. Which is potentially far more dangerous than this fend. However, Russell got sent off in the France game last year for a very similar forearm to the face. No-one was hurt and this is a contact sport, but the boys should know they cant do it anymore.

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