The controversial view of former All Blacks winger John Kirwan regarding last Saturday’s Bledisloe Cup sendings-off and his desire to have red cards removed from rugby unsurprisingly sparked a veritable storm online. His comments came following the match in Brisbane where Ofa Tu’ungafasi and Wallaby Lachlan Swinton were shown first-half red cards by referee Nic Berry for tackles to the head. 

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Kirwan, the 1987 World Cup-winning All Blacks star, discussed the incidents up when appearing on the latest episode of The Breakdown, the weekly Sky Sport NZ TV rugby programme.    

The former Italy coach said that “our game does not need red cards” as “people have paid good money to watch a game of rugby with 15-a-side”. He suggested players should be replaced instead or put on report. 

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The latest episode of The Breakdown reviews Bledisloe IV

However, Kirwan’s opinion was dismissed as being “out of touch” and “archaic” by many people online. 

Former Canada international Cameron Pierce, who was forced to retire in 2016 from severe post-concussion syndrome, told Kirwan to “get with the times”. Meanwhile, ex-England international Ugo Monye labelled the comments “unhelpful and irresponsible”. 

The area where so many disagreed with Kirwan was that player welfare must surely take precedence over the entertainment value of a match – and what was ironic about this most recent match was that the two red cards ensured the game as a spectacle did not actually suffer, with Australia eventually winning by just two points.

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Furthermore, while most people would agree that there is rarely any malicious intent from players when tackling, a red card is there as a deterrent. However, some people were also in agreement with Kirwan, feeling that a red card was no longer working as a deterrent. 

These tackles are certainly dangerous, but the point Kirwan made was that there were alternatives to red cards as this punishment was not stopping players from doing these type of offences, particularly as the majority of them are mistakes, albeit reckless.  

Both Super Rugby Aotearoa and AU experimented with law variations this year around the red card where the offending player was removed from the game but the team were allowed to replace them after 20 minutes to prevent games becoming too one-sided. 

The counter to this experiment – and to Kirwan’s stance – has always been that this may see a rise in key players being targeted early on in games, with the side committing the act of foul play knowing they do not risk being down to 14 men for the rest of the game. 

That is only conjecture and did not prove to be the case in either competition in Australia or New Zealand. Only one red card was brandished on either side of the Tasman, which was for two yellow cards. 

In all sports, there is never complete agreement among players, pundits and fans, but the framework around the rugby union red card is constantly being adjusted and there will no doubt be more change to come. Tu’ungafasi received a three-week ban this week for his tackle, while Swinton was given four. 

 

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