Owen Farrell will miss the start of the World Cup after the England captain was banned for four matches by an appeal committee for his dangerous tackle against Wales.
Farrell will be unavailable for the crucial Pool D matches against Argentina and Japan, with this month’s warm-up games against Ireland and Fiji also included in the suspension.
World Rugby had appealed against the decision of a disciplinary panel to downgrade Farrell’s red card for a high tackle at Twickenham on August 12 to yellow.
A furious outcry greeted the verdict that the Saracens fly-half’s shoulder-led challenge to Taine Basham’s head, which caused the Wales flanker to fail a HIA, was a sin-binning offence only.
The appeal committee found that the original hearing had not considered Farrell’s failure to wrap when attempting the tackle, which had formed a key part of the bunker review system’s analysis when upgrading from yellow to red.
On this basis it was decided to hear the case afresh and after a video hearing that began at 7.30am and finished early evening it was decided that a sending-off was the right outcome because the hit on Basham was ‘always illegal’.
World Rugby’s guidelines state that mitigation does not apply for “always-illegal acts of foul play” and therefore Farrell should not have been cleared even if Basham’s body-dynamics had changed before contact was made – the original reason for letting him off.
𝐃𝐢𝐬𝐜𝐢𝐩𝐥𝐢𝐧𝐚𝐫𝐲 𝐮𝐩𝐝𝐚𝐭𝐞: Owen Farrell
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) August 22, 2023
An automatic six-match ban for the offence was reduced by two games because of Farrell’s acceptance of foul play, clear demonstration of remorse and good character.
It means the 31-year-old will be available the second half of Pool D, which comprises of fixtures against Chile and Samoa, as well as any knockout clashes.
While the ban will be widely seen as the right outcome given the sport’s crackdown on dangerous play, England must now plan for their two most important group games without their talisman.
George Ford is expected to start at fly-half against Argentina and Japan with Marcus Smith offering cover from the bench and although they are high-quality alternatives, the disruption to Steve Borthwick’s plans has been significant.
England could also lose another key player to suspension after Billy Vunipola was sent off for a dangerous tackle against Ireland on Saturday with the verdict from his hearing due on Wednesday morning.
Borthwick rounded on Farrell’s critics last week, stating that he was the victim of “personal attacks” on his “character”, but attack coach Richard Wigglesworth insisted the Lions playmaker had taken the furore in his stride.
“We have been publicly criticised and the stuff around it was rightly criticised,” said Wigglesworth, speaking on Tuesday before the appeal verdict was known.
“Owen is one of the strongest people you will meet and he has been excellent around the squad.
“He could not have handled it better and I’m sure that facing a similar situation not many people would have handled it like he did.
“He has had that through a lot of his career. He is well versed in it being brought up around big games.
“Would you plan it like this? No you wouldn’t. But if we’re saying it’s a big disruption that would be an excuse and not one we want to use.”
In a twist of fate, World Rugby has revealed that the Pool D clash against Japan in Nice on September 17 is to be refereed by Georgian official Nika Amashukeli, who sent Farrell off against Wales as well as issuing three other yellow cards to England players.
Amashukeli also sent Henry Arundell, Freddie Steward and Ellis Genge to the sin-bin with England at one point reduced to 12 men.
As it stands Twickenham will only be half full for Saturday’s clash with Fiji due to only around 40,000 tickets being sold for the final warm-up match before Borthwick’s squad depart for France.