When Ofa Tuungafasi was sent from the field in the 23rd minute of Bledisloe IV, you could tell that various rugby media folk around the world would be licking their lips.
For the third time in four years, the All Blacks were again to be playing with a man down – what shambles! The match was about to be ruined – the only tier one international match of the weekend, as it so happened – the contest was about to be over, and the game of rugby was once again going to be brought into disrepute.
As World Rugby’s critics crawled out of the woodwork, however, something remarkable happened.
A mere 12 minutes following the All Black prop’s red card, and with the scores locked at 8-all, the ledger was suddenly evened up as Wallabies debutant Lachie Swinton was marched from the pitch for exactly the same crime as Tuungafasi.
‘What now?’ the wind-up merchants cried to anyone who would listen – all the folks unfortunate enough to follow them on social media.
After all, with the scores even and the playing numbers level, red cards hadn’t ‘ruined’ the game and what was there to complain about?
Some critics pivoted.
“Our game does not need red cards,” declared former All Black John Kirwan. “People have paid good money to watch a game of rugby with 15-a-side. That’s my biggest issue.”
Kirwan is correct on some level. While fans don’t necessarily expect to always see 30 men on the field, they certainly don’t go to a match hoping for a player or two to be sent off.
The structure of the game takes a big hit when a side is permanently forced to play with one fewer player, as we saw on Saturday night. Every man on the pitch is a vital cog in the machine and although a side might be able to make do without a winger, losing a forward is an entirely different kettle of fish.
But the game’s organising body also doesn’t expect to see red cards being pulled left right and centre, even thought the rules are clear cut.
Ahead of last year’s World Cup, World Rugby issued very clear and very strict framework for the policing of high tackles.
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Regarding what happened in Brisbane, any shoulder charge to the head will automatically result in a red card unless there are mitigating factors. Those mitigating factors include a sudden drop in height from the ball-carrier or if the tackle rides up from the first point of contact.
There was no sudden change in height from either Tom Wright or Sam Whitelock or other mitigating factors, however – despite New Zealand commentator and former All Black Justin Marshall’s comments at the time.
It should be noted that Kirwan, when lamenting the red cards, wasn’t advocating that players shouldn’t be punished for their indiscretions. The former Japan, Italy and Blues coach instead suggested that World Rugby adopt a similar approach to the laws that were trialled during Super Rugby Aotearoa, where red-carded players could be replaced after a set period of time.
That would ensure that offending players are still reprimanded, but their team and the spectators don’t suffer unfairly.
The team argument is a shallow one. When one player commits an indiscretion at the breakdown, it’s not just the individual that’s marched ten metres down the field, it’s them and all their teammates. That’s simply the nature of team sports.
Kirwan was also unhappy that Akira Ioane, in his debut game, had to be pulled after 25 minutes because the All Blacks needed to bring on a front row replacement for Tuungafasi.
Somewhat melodramatically, Kirwan claimed that players’ livelihoods were at stake – that Ioane’s value won’t be a fair reflection of his capabilities as he’s losing out on an opportunity to prove himself thanks to Tuungafasi’s poor tackle.
Again, rugby is a team sport. Any one player is constantly being made to look better or worse than they truly are due to the teammates around them.
There’s still some merit to Kirwan’s comments – though you have to sift through the dirt to find any licks of gold.
“This is what really annoys me about World Rugby,” he said. “Make some decisions for the entertainment of the game, for the fan, put people on report or replace them.
“Let’s leave the refs alone… I believe that the protocols are wrong and we need to change them.”
The problem isn’t specifically with the high tackle framework. Despite what Kirwan, Marshall and no doubt a trove of other former players might tell you, rugby needs to tread very carefully with regards to any player welfare issues. We still don’t really understand the impact multiple head knocks and concussions can have on former players once they reach their twilight years – but we do know that there are some unfortunate souls who have already been gravely affected.
The problem doesn’t lie in the high tackle protocols – they’re clear cut. Hit a player high and unless it’s completely outside of your control, you’ll be time on the sidelines.
The problem lies in how consistently foul and dangerous play is treated.
Take Filipo Daugnu’s challenge on Caleb Clarke in Sydney, which saw Clarke’s legs taken out while he was jumping to claim a high ball.
Thankfully, the 21-year-old landed on his side – after reaching out to break his own fall. But there was a very real possibility that Clarke could have landed dangerously, especially if he hadn’t reacted fast enough.
Had Clarke flipped completely, Daugunu would have been handed a red card. Instead, the Wallabies wing was sin-binned for 10 minutes.
Ultimately, the severity of Daugunu’s punishment was hugely dependant on Clarke’s reactions – which is a dangerous approach to refereeing.
Reaction has been plentiful online to the ex-All Black's claim rugby should ditch using red cards https://t.co/rKLi32sQY3
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 11, 2020
If Clarke’s lack of injury was enough to decrease Daugunu’s challenge from a red card to a lighter shade, then why isn’t the same method used for adjudicating high tackles?
And while Tuungafasi and Swinton’s tackles were reckless, there was likely no malice in their actions, which can’t be said for the punches thrown by Sona Taumalolo in Hawke’s Bay successful defence of the Ranfurly Shield on Sunday.
Taumalolo was handed a three-week ban by New Zealand Rugby – one week for each punch, after his six-week starting sentence was cut in half for good behaviour over a long career.
How anyone could determine that three deliberate punches to the head were equal to one collision resulting from poor technique is a mystery, but it highlights the inconsistencies in sentencing.
We have three scenarios – taking out a player in the air, high tackles, and deliberate foul play – which have all ostensibly been assessed using different criteria. It’s a farce and a half.
Given the different approaches, you can understand why someone like John Kirwan might be frustrated with a team going down to 14 men for a match based on the actions of one player – actions which aren’t always refereed to the same standard. Thankfully, in the Wallabies’ win on Saturday, referee Nic Berry was as consistent as a dial tone.
At the end of the day, consistency is arguably the most important thing when it comes to applying the comprehensive, sometimes convoluted laws of the game. Berry got it right on the weekend, but that doesn’t mean the various regulations which apply to foul play are fair or even uniform.
It’s an area of rugby which will always attract attention, especially when the laws come to the fore in big matches with lasting consequences.
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