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.
“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. “