Why Jamason's Fa'anana-Schultz's Suspension is Unfair and Dangerous

By Alistair Kirsch-Poole
Mar 21, 2024 - 12:00pm

I'm not normally one to focus on the refereeing in a match. Much like the bounce of the ball or a gust of wind can randomly affect a game, so to can the inherent inconsistencies in referee decisions. Trying to relitigate particular moments in a match or make arguments about how things could've or would've gone if certain calls had been different is a path to insanity.

On Saturday, the referees had to make a tough call on the field about whether Jamason Fa'anana-Schultz was guilty of foul play after a dangerous aerial collision had Chicago's Billy Meakes land on his head. They decided that he was and sent him off the field with a red card. While I was skeptical even at the time, I don't blame the referees for seeing a dangerous situation and wanting to take action.

However, I have no qualms criticizing and finding fault with MLR's disciplinary committee, who announced yesterday that Fa'anana-Schultz will face a 5-match suspension for his actions. As I'll go over in detail in ths article, it stretches credulity to the breaking point to try and argue any sort of intent or recklessness on the part of Fa'anana-Schultz. Furthermore, the decision to pubish him actually encourages dangerous play and undermines the fairness of the game.

What actually happened

I've embedded a clip to of the event in question at the end of this section so that you can refer to it throughout this explanation.

The play starts with a lineout being overthrown by Chicacgo, with the ball hitting the ground and bouncing over head height. Chicago's Billy Meakes and Old Glory's Jamason Fa'anana-Schultz both run towards the ball at first, however when it becomes clear that he is not in a position to catch the ball Fa'anana-Schultz starts slowing down and preparing to defend. His eyes go from the ball to Meakes, so that he can be prepared for whatever Meakes does after catching the ball.

Meakes at this point is the only player properly positioned to catch the ball, which is coming down on a trajectory that will have it land right on his chest. It is clear that no contest will happen for the ball, with the only player nearby, Fa'anana-Schultz, having already clearly opted out. Meakes still requires some forward momentum to put him in the spot where the ball will land.

Just before he would have caught the anyway, Meakes decides to jump for it. He catches the ball against his chest, "bread basket" style, with a significant amount of forward momentum. At the time when it becomes clear Meakes is about to jump, Fa'anana-Schultz has already reduced his forward momentum significantly and only take another step or two to come to a stop. There are still several meters between him and Meakes when the latter jumps.

Meakes's momentum into the jump carries him forward, colliding with a stationary Fa'anana-Schultz. Due to the height of his jump, his collision with Fa'anana-Schultz's shoulder flips him upside down. Fa'anana-Schultz appears to make an attempt to grab Meakes's legs in an attempt to mitigate the danger of the situation. It's ineffective, with Meakes landing dangerously on his head.

Finding fault

The danger of the situation is clear, so the question becomes: did Fa'anana-Schultz display intention or recklessness that lead to that result?

At a minimum, it should be easy to agree that Fa'anana-Schultz is not guilty of intentionally causing harm to Meakes. He appears to be completely taken by surprise in the situation. That much was obvious even to the referees on the field at the time.

So the question is one of reckless. Should Fa'anana-Schultz have been aware of the situation and prepared for Meakes to jump?

Players in the air

There are some circumstances where players are expect to jump. The most frequent situation is when a ball is kicked high, and players jump to contest it in the air. In these cases, players who are not contesting the ball are expected to be prepared for players who are and keep enough distance between themselves and the contesting players to avoid incidents in the air.

This distance and awareness of the situation is part of a players duty of care to the players in the air, as law 9.17 states that a player may not tackle, charge, pull, push, or grasp a player in the air. In practice, this means that players have to maintain enough situational awareness to avoid interfering with players who have jumped in obvious jumping situations. Even if a jump isn't necessary to secure the ball, defending players must assume that the catching player will jump.

In situationwhere a kick is being caught, any contact in the air is automatically assumed to be the fault of the player on the ground, since these circumstances appear so frequently that there is no excuse for a player not to be prepared. However, the situation with Fa'anana-Schultz is notable not a kick, it's a high bounce off of an overthrown lineout. So the question of reckless of comes down to whether it's reasonable to expect Fa'anana-Schultz to be prepared for Meakes to jump in this situation.

There are cases where players jump for the ball in these circumstances. Later in the same match, in fact, Meakes and KoiKoi Nelligan both jump in an almost identical overthrown lineout. However, there are factors that make that situation different. The ball in that case is contested, requiring the players to jump in order to secure the abll before the other player. Both players also jump almost straight up, rather than with significant forward momentum.

In the earlier situation, Meakes is not contesting the ball with anyone, as Fa'anana-Schultz has already clearly shown by that point that he has given up on catching the ball. Meakes also does not have to jump for the ball to catch it, as it's already coming down straight into his chest. This isn't a situation where the ball was traveling over his head and he was obligated to jump just to catch it.

What this leaves us with is a situation where 1. this is not one of the standard situations which players jump, 2. when players do jump in these circumstances, it's rarely this sort of jump, with significant forward momentum and a breadbasket carry, and 3. there were no situational factors which suggested a jump was required or warranted from Meakes. It's difficult to see why we should expect Fa'anana-Schultz to be prepared for Meakes's jump in this case.

The responsibility that Meakes bears

Adding further to Fa'anana-Schultz's defense is the fact that a player can't just jump whenever they please. The laws lay out a clear level of responsibility for player who are jumping: law 9.11 states (among other things) that players may not jump into or over a player.

There is an inherent conflict between the two laws I've cited, which can raise questions of who is at fault in an aerial collision of this sort. World Rugby released law clarification 3-2022 to address this, which states that "if a player is deemed to have left the ground to avoid a tackle; or to jump, or hurdle a potential tackler, then this is dangerous play and should be sanctioned accordingly".

The clarification was sought to establish what counts as unfair play - after all, a player could simply put themselves in the air anytime they might get hit to avoid getting tackled, but this would be clearly unfair to defensive players who have a right to try and tackle a player with the ball but a responsibility not to touch them in the air.

So we have to question whether Meakes's jump was even legal in the first place, and the evidence seems fairly damning. As covered previously, the jump was quite clearly unnecessary, as there was no contest for the ball and jumping did nothing to improve Meakes's chances of securing it (if anything jumping made the catch harder). The only reason Meakes would have to jump is to deny Fa'anana-Schultz the opportunity to tackle him.

This sort of thing is expected on a kick, but not on a high bouncing ball. His decision here is unusual and reckless given that there are defenders around. Meakes himself also has a responsibility to not play recklessly, and jumping into traffic as he did seems to pretty clearly qualify.

Meakes's forward momentum is also an issue, as it makes it a jump into a tackle. Fa'anana-Schultz is nearly stationary by the time Meakes makes the jump, and there are several meters between them. There isn't some reckless speed on Fa'anana-Schultz's part that makes the situation dangerous, only Meakes's decision to jump.

It also raises again the question of what it's fair to expect from Fa'anana-Schultz. He is playing a game and taking a course of action that is entirely reasonable: he expects an opposition player to catch the ball and he's positioned himself to be able to play the man once he has the ball. He's even left signficant space between himself and the opposition player so that he would have time to make a safe tackle. It's the sort of behaviour that you want and expect from a player in his situation.

What did we actually expect Fa'anana-Schultz to do?

It's unclear how the disciplinary committee thinks that Fa'anana-Schultz should have acted in the situation. How much space can he be expected to leave around a player catching a ball on the off-chance he might jump for it? Is he not allowed to preaassure a player catching a ball? Should Fa'anana-Schultz have lowered his shoulder before Meakes's jump to make it clear that he was jumping into a tackle? It's not clear what correct behaviour from Fa'anana-Schultz even looks like.

The ban

With all of that taken together, it's difficult to see how a committee of people who understand the laws of rugby could conclude that Fa'anana-Schultz bears any significant degree of responsibility for what happened. At worst, he was a player who was put in a difficult spot by an unpredictable jump. At best, the situation should actually have led to a penalty against Billy Meakes.

Even if we somehow stretch an interpretation that finds Fa'anana-Schultz liable of some recklessness, anything but the lightest of bans, mitigated significantly down by the clear lack of intent and the obvious strangeness of the situation is a travesty. By upholding this red card, the disciplinary committee has muddied the waters of reckless play and made the game less safe and less fair.

I'm also all for using the laws to prevent dangerous play. However, it's not fair or good for the game to assume that it is only the defensive player who holds a responsibility to safe play. Just because a player ended up in a dangerous situation does not mean that another player must be responsbile for it - this situation was entirely of Meakes's own making. This decision sends the signal to players that recklessly throwing yourself in the air at unexpected times will actually be rewarded, not punished, and means that we could see situations similar to this arising more often.

It's important for rugby to maintain a balance of responsibility for all players, and not simply opt to punish whoever might have been involved regardless of their culpability. Neglecting to enforce the responsibility that players have to their own safety by refusing to take a common sense approach to discipline will simply make the most effective players the ones who are willing to be most reckless with their bodies. That's not the sort of game that rugby should be trying to become. It actually makes the game both more dangerous and more unfair.

Disciplinary history

Cited as a contibuting factor in ban is "prior disciplinary issues", which I can only assume refers to the red cards he received in 2021 and 2022. Fa'anana-Schultz has shown a clear commitment to reform since those cards, taking on a leadership role with the team and staying out of disciplinary trouble. In fact, it's been two years since he received any sort of card, red or yellow.

I'm not someone who will blindly defend any action by players on the team I support. When Fa'anana-Schultz recieved a 10 week ban for his third red card in a year and a half, I was supportive of that decision by the disciplinary committee. It was clearly the correct decision based on the frequency of his offenses, and my only complaint at the time was that other players weren't always held to the same standard.

And even if we accept the charge, to hold against a player a borderline offense and punish him extra for old offenses does nothing it improve the safety of the game nor dissuade unfair play. It only serves to hurt a player who has been impressively willing and able to reform.