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The Roar



My solution to rugby’s card issue

Roar Rookie
28th February, 2021
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Roar Rookie
28th February, 2021
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I am sick of seeing players infringing because they know they are unlikely to be yellow carded.

They are unlikely to be yellow carded because it is a first or second offence. They are then to be told they are now on a warning and that same thing will get them a yellow card.

I understand the conundrum the referees are in. If they hand out yellow cards for the first offence, then players would pretty quickly accumulate two yellow cards, bringing up the whole red card game dilemma: that it ends up ruining the game as a contest and thus as a spectacle.

The red card dilemma is being addressed. This makes sense as red cards are not as rare as they used to be and will probably become more common. The adjustment to a red card, allowing a replacement after 20 minutes, is being trialled and is probably the right way to go.

But if the 20 minutes replacement adjustment becomes standard, the referee should still be able to enforce a no replacement sanction for offences like punching, squirrel grabbing and eye gouging. Those sorts of offences have no place in rugby.

But an adjustment to the application of the red card would do nothing to stop the epidemic of a low level of offending. A penalty that also results in a warning is either the second to last straw in a string of offences or a single, more egregious, offence that does not quite meet the yellow card threshold for a single offence. In both cases the offending team has eked out an advantage, basically manipulating the laws.

Lachlan Swinton of the Wallabies is sent off

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

One aspect that should be paid more attention to is teams continuing to infringe when the opposition has penalty advantage. These offences should be counted towards the string of offences that is required to earn a yellow card, like they are separate penalties.

In most instances they are basically professional fouls, deliberately slowing down play and trying to stop scoring opportunities. As penalty advantage is probably the best attacking situation, any mistake reverts to a penalty for the attacking team.


Lots of teams cynically offend to stop scoring opportunities. The All Blacks under Richie McCaw made use of cynical penalties when the opposition was close to scoring, but mostly avoided yellow cards due to a lack of previous offending. The current Crusaders team could also be put in this category.

Though to many New Zealanders, the prime example of cynical play would be English killing the ball. You can say ‘good on them, play to the whistle’. But another way of looking at it is that cynical offending is snuffing out scoring opportunities, and causing many stoppages, both harming the spectacle. This means the laws need to changed, or actually enforced.

One solution that has been raised is for penalties to count toward a team foul. This is sort of in place now but it is not well defined and when it happens it is generally past the point where more serious sanctions should’ve already been applied.

The particulars of how a more defined team foul would work are unclear, such as do all penalty offences count the same? Is there a time limit for how long the offences count toward the team foul? Is the next player to offend the person who is yellow carded, or does the captain decide? A more developed team foul system would be a struggle to administer.

Sam Cane speaks to the referee

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)


Referees need additional tools to combat this type of offending. Intermediate steps between a penalty and a yellow card are required. One option is a super penalty for lack of a better phrase.

Give the team receiving the super penalty additional options. For example, the mark could be moved more than ten metres forward (based on the referee’s discretion), like in the NFL. An option to move the mark to the centre of the field such as setting up a midfield scrum, or making a kick for goal kick or touch easier. The restart (scrum or lineout) could be made non-contestable by the defending team. A further option could be the option to automatically convert the super penalty to three points. These additional options would also be offered when a yellow or red card is sanctioned.

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Going further, perhaps all lineouts and scrums resulting from penalties should be made non-contestable. A good set piece negates the cost of a penalty, such as if the defending team’s lineout or scrum is markedly better than the team that receives the penalty.


Perhaps a simpler option is instead of just a warning, the offending player also receives a two-minute or five-minute penalty in the bin. That could be enough of a deterrent to make them play within the laws. Any player who accrued more than 20 minutes would earn a red card.

There will no doubt be some resistance to that idea. People argued against the yellow card for years, saying that the personnel changes would mess up the flow of the game. But most decent sides can now deal with multiple changes without losing cohesion. Players regularly come on and off the field for the blood bin and head injury assessment. The addition of a two-minute or five-minute sin bin would not be unworkable.

Rob Simmons yellow card

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The yellow card was resisted, at international level, until the late 1990s. But no one would say the yellow card has had anything but a positive impact on the game. The yellow card gives referees more nuance to deal with offending, like when they expanded its use to combat professional fouls.

The infamous Michael Brial/Frank Bunce incident from 1996 made the IRB realise that more just than the red card was required. As an aside, it is amazing that a red card was not sanctioned in that instance. Brial should’ve been red carded and banned for the season.

One extreme option would be to make persistent, cynical, offending punishable by the judiciary. Allowing players to receive a suspension would be a massive deterrent. If that extreme outcome was used the judiciary would realistically only be able to suspend players for offending that was recognised by the officials on the field during the game.

A citing system for cynical offending would be a logistical nightmare, due there being far more potential events to review. It would also be a pseudo-public review of refereeing decisions, which is a route World Rugby does not seem to want to go down.

There are teams that seek to cynically flout the laws of the game. This generally results in a spectacle that is only enjoyed by the supporters of the team who are flouting the laws, or nobody at all.


Some of the potential solutions I suggest are new while some are currently in place – or they are supposed to be – but require more stringent enforcement. Rugby is no longer a game of talented amateurs, but a game of professionals who are providing entertainment for a paying audience. The laws should be written and enforced to recognise this.