Thursday night’s Round 4 National Rugby Championship game between Brisbane City and the North Harbour Rays was a remarkable, high-energy contest suffused with the dynamic, running rugby that fans have come to enjoy and expect from the NRC.
It featured no fewer than 12 tries, countless extraordinary line breaks and a standout performance from Karmichael Hunt at fullback.
So much to talk about, but the thing that stuck in my mind as I left a chilly Ballymore with about 2000 others, was the red card that helped define the match.
Normally reserved for serious foul play such as head-butting or dangerous tip tackles, red cards are seldom brandished lightly, yet this one was as soft a red card as you will see at any level.
The Rays’ centre Dennis Pili-Gaitau was shown a second yellow card by referee Rohan Hoffman just 10 minutes into the second half for an infringement at the breakdown. After some consultation with the sideline, it was confirmed he had already received one yellow so was correctly shown a red.
Arguably, this was the decisive moment in the game. The Rays were just building momentum after an early Brisbane onslaught, but the red card stunted their attacking ambition and they would go on to lose the game 55-29, and with it their chance to steal the Horan-Little Shield from the competition frontrunners.
Pili-Gaitau was not alone in being shown yellow. Mr Hoffman brandished four cards in total, with Wallaby backrow teammates Scott Higginbotham and City captain Liam Gill both spending time on the sidelines.
Brett McKay’s statistical analysis of the first NRC season backs up the impression that more yellow cards are being brandished in the NRC, with 62 yellow cards being handed out over 39 NRC games, or 1.6 per game.
And I don’t really have a problem with players being pinged for cynical fouls at the breakdown if it improves the speed of the game. After all, dropping points for penalties from three to two almost encourages cynical fouls to be committed. Yellow cards are therefore necessary for the greater good, even if they are soft.
Pili-Gaitau’s yellows could be described as such, but you could say the same thing for other decisions in the game as well.
The 35th minute sin-binning of Higginbotham seemed to boil down to the assertion that when two players are in a disagreement and Higginbotham is one of them, it’s probably his fault and should be sent off.
Not normally a outlandish deduction, however in this case I thought the former Wallaby No.8 was unlucky. And although Higginbotham should have shown more maturity, being kneed in the back does tend to spark fire in most people.
However, I felt a little sorry for Pili-Gaitau as he trudged off, leaving his team down a man for the remaining half hour of the game last night, and felt perhaps the punishment was disproportionate to the crime.
The New Zealand-born Manly and former North Harbour ITM Cup player did get caught interfering at the breakdown twice, and there would be plenty saying that he got what he deserved.
But his send off allowed a tired and beaten up Brisbane City side – coming off a short turnaround from a brutal Queensland derby in Toowoomba last Sunday – to wrest back control of the game and put the Rays to the sword in the final quarter.
And despite the fact that mixing two yellows together always makes red (despite what teachers told you in art class), I think there is another option for these (albeit rare) circumstances that deserves some thought.
The black card
Borrowing ideas from a couple of other sports for a moment – in the less-than-original spirit of the sin bin in the first place – I would introduce a black card to the game.
Now I can understand the reticence in adding another card to the kaleidoscopic nature of a referee’s notebook (especially with Italy’s Serie B introducing green cards to bamboozle the colourblind minority among us) but I feel the experimental rule changing melting pot of the NRC would be a perfect place to test this alteration.
A black card was introduced to GAA in 2014 for “cynical behaviour fouls”, but with limited usage by hesitant referees so far its effectiveness has yet to be fully measured. In basic terms it allows for a player to be fully dismissed but replaced with a substitute meaning the team retain a full complement on the field.
If a player commits one of five indiscretions, ranging from deliberate tripping to vehemently remonstrating with a referee, they receive a black card.
In waterpolo a similar rule exists. If you are sent out (sin binned) three times in the game, the team is only a man down for 20 seconds each. On your third send out, you cannot return, but a teammate can replace you instead.
With my black card rule in place last night, Mr Hoffman could have showed a second yellow to Pili-Gaitau, followed by a black card which says that he was no longer allowed to return to the field of play after his 10 minutes in the bin.
However, after that 10 minutes is up, Rays coach Tai McIsaac could replace Pili-Gaitau with another player.
As far as I can see, this sufficiently penalises both the individual and the team, but not to the extent that it ruins the game based on a solitary decision for a fairly minor indiscretion. Red cards should be limited for serious foul play, not technical fouls.
Of course, I have no doubt that there are plenty of those who would suggest that if a player is stupid enough to be caught committing the same offence twice then he deserves all he gets.
And this might be as a rare an occurrence as being given out obstructing the field, therefore remaining an annoying but necessary quirk of the system that doesn’t need adjusting on condition of its rarity.
It would be interesting to gauge peoples views on whether this is needed or would work.