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The Wrap: Red cards ruining rugby? Think again

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21st October, 2018
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On July 13th this year Sunwolves player Ed Quirk found himself on top of Reds fly-half Hamish Stuart at the bottom of a ruck, and couldn’t resist the opportunity to punch him in the face.

As far as strikes go this was no Mike Tyson haymaker, but it was enough for referee Ben O’Keeffe, acting within the letter of the law, to issue a red card.

Very quickly, all hell broke out, with the coaches of both teams, Tony Brown and Brad Thorn, joining fans, media and players in expressing “genuine fears about the future of the sport.”

Online forums adopted the mantra that ‘red cards are ruining rugby’, supported by the likes of Wallabies skills coach Mick Byrne who, decrying how matches were decided immediately one side gained a numerical 15 versus 14 advantage, said, “people pay their good money to watch a contest.”

Three months on, with Super Rugby completed, the Rugby Championships decided, the Mitre 10 Cup, NRC and Currie Cup all but completed, and the northern hemisphere club competitions swinging into action, it would appear that the death of rugby has been placed on hold for now – and it’s interesting to discover why.

First, to the curious case of Jerome Kaino and Lucas Pointud, playing last week for Toulouse against Bath in the European Champions Cup. Kaino produced one of his trademark defensive hits in midfield, stopping Bath centre Jamie Roberts – himself a sizeable man – in his tracks.

Referee Andrew Brace had one of those moments referees dread, where the crowd reacted to something he hadn’t seen clearly himself, and after a number of replays admitted, “I’m not sure where the point of contact is, but it’s reckless, yellow.”

The citing commissioner went a step further, later suspending Kaino for five weeks and, for good measure, also suspending teammate Pointud for four weeks, for striking an opponent with his head.

You know where this is heading, right?

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Bath lost the match 20-22, playing with 15 against 15 when Toulouse should have been reduced to 13 men on the pitch. Bath fans quickly forgot about Freddie Burns ambling around behind the dead ball line, forgetting to force the ball, or missing goals he normally nails in his sleep.

No, they lost because no red cards, for offences that met the red card threshold, made the match an unfair contest.

Confused? It seems that if red cards aren’t ruining rugby, no red cards are!

England's Joe Marler

And what of England prop Joe Marler confusing matters even more, admitting to deliberately seeking to be red-carded, so as to avoid selection for high-pressure international matches, thereby avoiding the wrath of The Roar’s Brett McKay for not scrumming straight?

In all seriousness, the Quirk and Kaino/Pointud scenarios sit at opposite ends of the debate and show just how difficult it is to devise laws and sanctions, and interpret and adjudicate on them to the satisfaction of everyone or that adequately cover every circumstance.

It also demonstrates how reasoned, objective analysis and interpretation too often flies out the window according to the colour of the shirt in question.

Remember Israel Folau and Peter O’Mahoney? Swap roles and imagine how public opinion in Australia and Ireland would have flipped in an instant.

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Israel Folau flies high

(AAP Image/Craig Golding)

Aside from one of those inexplicable moments that World Rugby has every so often, where they failed to support their man Angus Gardner, whose folly was to correctly, by law, issue a red card to France’s Benjamin Fall, a resolute push remains in place from the top, to reduce instances of concussion, by punishing contact to the head.

This weekend, Castres’ Maama Vaipulu and Gloucester’s Danny Cipriani were the latest to see red in European club action, both for high tackles making contact with an opponent’s head.

Roberts’ perspective is worth considering – after all, he left the field and failed an HIA, tweeting the next day about how sore his jaw was. Singing straight from the World Rugby hymn book, he stated, “Saying the game’s gone soft is a load of bullsh*t, if you’ll excuse the term. Players have to sink their hips and get their tackle height right”.

It will be a sad day for rugby if defensive enforcers like Kaino are no longer able to ply their trade, and five weeks seems harsh for what appeared to be nothing more than a solid shot on Roberts. But what is undeniable is that Roberts was hit in the head – either directly or by Kaino’s shoulder riding up off his sternum – and it will be a sadder day when he, and other players, are forced to retire early and/or experience difficulties later in life as a result of repeated concussions.

There is no getting around it – get used to the armpit line folks, it’s here to stay. And get used to match officials getting a few wrong and the ‘death of rugby’ chorus to crank up again – despite there being little evidence to support such a claim.

Super Rugby in 2017 saw 13 red cards issued across 142 matches, or one every 11 matches. Ten of those players pleaded guilty to offences ranging from dangerous/high contact (6), knee to the head (1), fighting (2), and dangerously taking a player out in the air (Kwagga Smith, famously in the final, won, away from home, by the Crusaders).

The remaining three red cards were to Beauden Barrett, Nic Stirzaker and Matt Duffie, all for a second yellow card offence, for which no further suspension was applied.

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Interestingly, the side that was reduced to 14 men won six of those thirteen matches, with two draws thrown in – hardly a ringing endorsement of the ‘red cards ruin the contest’ argument.

For the 2018 season, nine red cards were issued across 129 matches, a ratio of one every 14.3 matches. Here the breakdown was dangerous/high contact (5), dangerous tip tackle (1), head-butt (1), Tevita Nabura’s unusual kung-fu kick to Cameron Clark’s head, and Quirk’s punch on Stewart.

While there was uproar over Quirk, and also Folau Fainga’a, whose head contact was stupid but of minimal force, it is noteworthy that all players, including Quirk, pleaded guilty. This time just two matches were won by the affected side, although in some cases the matches were essentially decided anyway, when the red cards were issued.

This data begs the question, is one red card every 14-15 matches really a scourge on the game?

A clue can be found in the grouping of the cards. Following Scott Higginbotham’s dismissal in Round 2 (the Reds’ opening match), there wasn’t another red card until Round 14. In fact, the remaining eight red cards all came between Round 14 and 19, so it would certainly have felt that there was a spate of cards and a potential crisis occurring over this six-week period.

SANZAAR did, in fact, react, admitting to “some challenges regarding match officiating processes”, and conducted a late-season review. Because SANZAAR aren’t responsible for the laws of the game, their focus was on something they could control – the level of and method of TMO involvement. For many people, this was the main cause of concern anyway.

By the time of the finals, things were back on an even keel and, moving into next season, there is an expectation that there will be more clarity and consistency in the way TMOs and referees interact.

Test rugby throws up even stronger evidence that concern about rugby’s potential demise is overblown and without basis. In 2017 and 2018 to date, there were six red cards issued to players from rugby’s 12 highest ranked nations, in all of their Test matches.

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Sonny-Bill Williams for a shoulder charge, Damien de Allende for a dangerous late tackle, Sekope Kepu for a shoulder to the head, Tomas Lavanini for receiving two yellow cards, Benjamin Fall for taking a player out in the air, and Ross Moriarty for a choke, make up the list of offenders.

Benjamin Fall of France tackles Beauden Barrett of the All Blacks in the air

(Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

Both Fall and de Allende had their cards rescinded, suggesting a lack of clarity over interpretation, but there can be little doubt that Williams, Kepu and Moriarty were all clear-cut cases that were handled sensibly, on and off the field.

Hardly an epidemic of confusion and chaos is it?

What can reasonably be determined from these numbers is that the higher the level, the better the player, the more disciplined the player, the better the referee, the higher the stakes – all of these factors combine to produce fewer red cards in total, and, fewer instances of red cards issued for ‘nanny state’ reasons.

It is true that things are taking some time to settle down in the northern hemisphere this season, and some players, coaches and referees are yet to find the underside of the high contact line. But rest assured, it will happen.

What about the NRC, where there has been only one player sent off in the last two years, and none this season? Quite simply, the laws and officiating are not a concern. Players are simply getting on with the game.

And what about instances of a player taking out a catcher dangerously in the air – an aspect of the game that regularly raises emotionally charged ‘rugby is becoming too sanitised’ hackles?

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Just one case in two full seasons of 271 Super Rugby matches, shows how easily professional players can adapt their technique, and accept that laws aimed at protecting the safety of players, override any ‘but I kept my eyes on the ball’ style defence, whilst not detracting from the spectacle or the essence of rugby.

Undoubtedly there will be more contentious red cards issued in the future that send people scurrying to their computers to re-prosecute the case that cards are ruining rugby.

But when those cases do occur, it will almost certainly be because a player has made an error – got the point of contact slightly wrong, or mistimed their run into an aerial contest – as opposed to the laws of rugby not being fit for purpose.

When these cases do occur, we’d all be doing ourselves a favour to discuss each specific instance for what it really is, and leave the ‘red cards are ruining rugby’ argument locked away in the bottom drawer, where it belongs.

The weekend also saw the finalists decided in all ‘big three’ domestic competitions. In Cape Town, it took 20 minutes of extra-time for Western Province to set-up a repeat of last year’s Currie Cup final against the Sharks, while in New Zealand, a resurgent Auckland will host their traditional rival, Canterbury.

Both NRC semis were slosh-a-thons, with Queensland Country’s 45-24 win over the Western Force featuring a rare ten-minute break in play due to the danger of a lightning strike.

Country will travel to Fiji to face the Drua, who looked to be in trouble for much of their semi-final against a well-organised Canberra Vikings. But a change of front-row shifted momentum to the Drua, who will enter the final with a wet sail and high on belief.