To have a meaningful discussion on this topic is difficult.
Perhaps not as difficult as a conversation about Israel Folau. But difficult enough, because the nature of any red card situation produces a loser and a winner, and as fans of this team or the other, we have an emotional connection.
Nevertheless, a decent conversation needs to be had.
My assumptions that create this need are as follows.
1. Red cards have a high probability of deciding a game. More specifically, they have the highest probability of deciding the closest and most competitive games, which are arguably the best entertainment product the game has.
2. As the rules are currently constructed, almost all red cards are warranted. That is to say, even if the situation of the card is marginal, that there is enough actual contact with the head, and therefore from a purely legalistic point of view the law demands a red card.
3. All carding is terribly inconsistent. Were we to play any international match in slow motion we could almost certainly find three or five situations where there was contact to the head that the laws demand a red card for. Probably even more for yellow cards. And that in those three to five instances, cards were not issued.
4. When there is a red card, a certain number of the paying public hang up and go to bed, because the game as a competition is over. I don’t pretend to know what that number is, but I myself did go to bed after 18 minutes of the England versus Argentina match with the bold prediction that England would win comfortably and the media would use the word ‘brave’ to describe Argentina the next day.
All of these assumptions can be argued one way or the other, but if they are even largely fair and correct, then rugby has a problem. And the root of that problem isn’t the cards themselves but the consistency in the application of the law.
At the core the problem is that when any red card is issued the fans of the team that was carded probably have fair and reasonable gripe. Not that the card was not fair under the law, but that if they look close enough, their opposition almost certainly did the exact same thing without punishment. That is to say, made contact with the head in a tackle.
World Rugby is under pressure on head trauma in sport and the hidden cost of it. This isn’t a criticism of their motivations, but in their executions. Imagine the situation if your computer had a virus scanner that missed three to five viruses for very one it red-carded. How long would you put up with it?
Any system of justice that consistently misses 50 to 75 per cent of all incidents feeds distrust of that system. It attracts ridicule. Credibility erodes like rust and people emotionally disconnect. It becomes less about justice and more about making sure your opposition are the ones caught, while you get away. The connection with the fans is soured.
Some may rightly point out that many countries have real-world justice systems that fit this description; that they miss most of the crime. The difference here is that in rugby, what is missed is broadcast out to millions of living rooms for all to see and therefore the injustice in glaring. There are also other sports that don’t have the same level of injustice that people can watch.
In the short term, World Rugby is going to keep going down this road because they are dancing to the tune of the lawyers, and presumably feel they have no choice.
Rugby must find a way to apply its card laws consistently, particularly those that cause the result of the game to be decided.
Or else I suggest broadcasters will eventually turn up on their doorstep moaning about viewers going to bed because the product is only entertaining for the winning team who didn’t get a red card.