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'Everyone blames us': Kiwi ref's take on the Ewels' red card

By Ben Smith
Ben O'Keeffe (Photo by Steve Bardens - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

England’s second-minute red card to Charlie Ewels against Ireland has raised conjecture around the punishment for high tackles, with ex-All Black John Kirwan calling for the 20-minute red card rule to be re-introduced globally.


Referee Ben O’Keeffe, a guest panelist on The Breakdown, largely agreed with Kirwan’s view and offered in an insight into the processes the referee must go through to make the decision.

“I keep saying, it’s about the rules and how we need to get rid of some and change some,” Kirwan said.

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Back in the Game – RFU

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Back in the Game – RFU

“The red card on the weekend is just another moment where people are paying decent money going to a game and it’s being wrecked.

“The Northern Hemisphere did not want the 20-minute rule. I just think it ruins the game of rugby.”

Trialled in Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship last year, a team receiving a red card would be reduced to 14 men for 20 minutes, and that player could be replaced by a reserve. The infringing player would not be able to return to the field.

O’Keeffe agreed with Kirwan’s assertion that the outcome of a red card should change, but noted the on-field decision in the England game was correct as that is how the officials have been told to referee.


“If we look at this clip here [of the Ewels tackle], it’s less than two minutes into the game and it is a red card,” O’Keeffe explained.

“It’s one of the biggest games of the year in the Six Nations. As referees, we are told how we are going to referee these types of tackles.

“When a player isn’t in a legitimate position to make a tackle, not bent at the hips, they don’t have their arms up when they are upright, they’ve got to take responsibility of their outcomes and actions.

“The outcome of that [Ewels tackle], there was direct contact to the head, with force, there was no mitigation. Therefore, the referee has no other option but to issue a red card.


“That would have been a red card in the 78th minute, and unfortunately it was the second minute of that game.

“Now everyone is talking about how it was a great game, but it should have been a great game with 15 on 15.

“It puts pressure on us because everyone blames us for ruining the spectacle, ruining the games. It’s just the laws at the moment.”


18 months before the last World Cup, O’Keeffe was part of the group of referees who were consulted about the changes made and the implementation of the high-tackle framework.

The changes caused widespread controversy as the number of cards issued began to rise dramatically. O’Keeffe believes the changes were rolled out too close to the showpiece event for everyone to become familiar with the new laws.

“We all know that cards impact a game heavily. As referees we don’t want to impact the game but we have got to referee the laws,” O’Keeffe told The Breakdown.

“Before 2019, we had a high-tackle framework come out, six weeks out before a competition, the World Cup.

“Players didn’t have time to adjust. Referees, we didn’t really have time to probably get that correct either. In the first few rounds, I was involved in a few as well.

“There was a lot of controversy. We shouldn’t be having controversy in a World Cup. It should be about the players and the teams.”

O’Keeffe said the new high contact process has a lot more understanding among players and referees alike which has some flexibility and potential mitigation around contact to the head.

Not every incident will result in a red card now, whereas, previously, any contact deemed to touch the head would have been. By the time the World Cup arrives, O’Keeffe believes there will be a better understanding than last time.

“What’s changed now? So, we are 18 games away, we’ve got a high contact process now, which is slightly different, where we go through the points: Is there foul play? Is there head contact? If there is, how much force? is there any mitigation?

“There is a lot more understanding around if, ‘Okay, the force is low, it doesn’t always need to be a red card if there is contact to the head’.

“Whereas, a few years ago, if there is contact to the head, it is pretty much automatically a red card, so there is a shift there. There is better understanding from the referees. I think there is better technique from the players, they understand that better.

“I do believe by the time we get to the next World Cup, we are not going to drop too many changes and we should all be better for it.”


In other refereeing matters, there are growing concerns over the duration of a fixture with the number of incidents that get reviewed in a game.

Queensland Reds coach Brad Thorn was vocal about changes to the game to speed the process up after the first half against the Fijian Drua dragged on for over an hour.

25 penalties were blown by referee Jordan Way, while three yellow cards were given for three separate incidents inside 30 seconds during one lengthy stoppage before halftime.

The approach in Australia contrasts with the initiative underway in New Zealand as the officials actively try to speed up a game by referring less decisions to the TMO.

O’Keeffe says there has been a measurable impact in the difference between the games across the Tasman.

“I agree, we do need to speed the game up, the great thing we have been doing for Super Rugby is we as referees have been doing that,” he said.

“Up until the rounds so far, there has been about one TMO intervention per game on average in New Zealand where there is about three and a half in Australia, so already there is a difference.

“We are already saving four minutes of rugby, so we are going in the right direction to speed the game up, but still we need to work on the outcomes of these [red card] decisions.”


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Morne 18 minutes ago
Thanks but no thanks, the All Blacks do not need to copy the Boks

Some further observations: Most Rugby lovers I know agree that the AB’s have been the gold standard for as long as anyone can remember - very few people disagree. The odd time that any other team has some sort of ascendency - there are always those (albeit the minority) NZ supporters that need to remind us of the AB’s glorious gold standard that anyone winning them is only down to a mixture of pure luck or some or other sinister reason or bias from match officials (or indeed the Universe). For reasons mentioned above, any other team with some ascendency over the AB’s (even if it is the 1st time in 100 years) may not receive a pat on the back and a well-done - as they only did so out of pure luck. In my opinion, if the Boks were in the same realm as the AB’s SF opponents - they would have been smashed also - whether with 14 or 13 or 12 players. But remember they were just “lucky”. As a Bok supporter, I will say this team has done our proud - despite losing some games along the way. Like the AB’s, the games the boks lose are 9/10 times one score games - this is a long way from hidings like 57 - 0…And in that we must be proud. Most of these type of articles - especially those focusing on the RWC final rather conveniently leave out any mention of Pieter Steph du Toit, or even Eben Etzebeth who won all their collusions all day long. So to those very very few bad loser AB supporters out there (definitely the minority) - I’ll say what you want to hear - the AB’s are without any doubt the best Rugby brand ever. They have consistently achieved what all other teams can only dream of. And no doubt they will scale those heights again. Now what about allowing others the odd ray of sunlight that comes our way?

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