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Ref Watch: The obvious question as unwanted Six Nations history made

By Paul Smith
France's tight head prop Mohamed Haouas (R/#3) reacts after being issued with a red card by Georgian referee Nika Amashukeli (R) during the Six Nations rugby union tournament match between France and Scotland at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, northern Paris, on February 26, 2023. (Photo by ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT / AFP) (Photo by ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images)

Not too many years ago two red cards – or sendings off as they then would have been termed – in the opening 11 minutes of a Six Nation match would have seen questions asked in Parliament.

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It is therefore reflective of the extent to which the war being waged on head injuries has changed the nature of rugby union at the highest level that ITV’s half-time analysis barely mentioned the early dismissals of Scotland’s Grant Gilchrist and France’s Mohamad Houas for dangerous tackles.

Putting myself in referee Nika Amashukeli’s shoes, I can only imagine how the pulse would have raced had I ever been in the same situation. As a referee you desperately want the players to determine the outcome of the contest, not your decision-making, so issuing a red card historically was an absolute last resort.

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A little of this old-school refereeing psyche clearly still remains since the Georgian whistler, when considering an appropriate sanction for Houas today, and Wayne Barnes in round two when incorrectly (according to the citing commission which followed and most reasonable onlookers) scaling Uini Atonio’s punishment for a similar crime down to a yellow card, both sought to avoid brandishing red if at all possible.

In addition to this being our natural instinct as referees, with huge crowds having paid a lot of money to watch the match live and a TV audience seeking entertainment, both Barnes and Amashukeli will have been subliminally aware that a lop-sided contest often follows a red card.

Being honest, with the amount of red cards now being shown, this traditional refereeing mindset is dated and needs to be completely left where it was born in the amateur era.

Referees, players and fans must all now accept that law makers have gone in a new direction based on science and the input of thousands of hours of considered opinion from players and coaches. Showing a red card is now a fact of refereeing life which can only be viewed as a process based on an evaluation of factual evidence followed by an appropriate sanction with no stigma attached.

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It was interesting to compare the approaches of the touch judges and TMO supporting the relatively inexperienced (in top-flight international terms) Amashukeli today with the input of those who made up Barnes’ team during the Ireland-France game a fortnight ago.

Being charitable, today’s team of officials learned from the Aviva Stadium incident which saw Barnes hone in on a small amount of Atonio’s initial contact being on the chest/shoulder prior to his arm smashing into the ball-carrier’s head, and as such put forward an interpretation of the incident which justified the card being downgraded from red to yellow.

On that occasion, from what we heard on the ref mic, none of the other officials challenged Barnes with an alternative view. By contrast when Amashukeli suggested little force was present, both Karl Dickson and Andrea Piardi immediately and correctly voiced the opinion that Houas deserved a red card as no mitigation existed.

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Grant Gilchrist of Scotland is shown the red card from Referee Nika Amashukeli during the Six Nations Rugby match between France and Scotland at Stade de France on February 26, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
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An alternative scenario is that TJ Dickson was the most experienced of the three onfield officials and as such felt able to contradict and challenge the view of the Georgian in a way which would be much harder for any touch judge to do with the world’s most-capped referee who – lest we forget – is also a veteran of four World Cups.

In places social media has voiced the opinion that Amashukeli deserves criticism for not interpreting the direct head-on-head contact, which happened when Scotland scrum-half Ben White was a static rather than moving target, as meriting red. While he undoubtedly had this call wrong initially, I prefer the view that the team of officials got it right – which is why they are there.

No doubt the ‘game’s gone soft’ brigade will again be out in force following two red cards neither of which 20 years ago would have merited much more than a penalty.

However, the question I find myself asking almost every time we get a sending-off following the use of the head contact protocol is why are modern players not learning?

If you go into a tackle as Grant Gilchrist did in an upright position with your arm tucked to your side the outcome is often problematic. If you fail to bend or go at chest level with a swinging arm there is no margin left for error when a split-second alteration is required due to a change of direction or height. As for a Houas-style assault, words fail me.

The changes made to how the game is refereed have followed significant consultation with players and coaches of the current generation. They have been not been imposed by a group of 60-something, gin-swilling blazered buffoons or by crackpot university researchers in some black box think tank.

Most relevantly, these changes have been done to improve the safety of the sport for those currently playing and the image of the sport for parents whose children represent the next generation of club and professional players.

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Within the professional game there seems a disconnect between the Steve Thompson/Michael Lipman group whose struggles with early-onset dementia and a significant amount of lifestyle issues, who generate so much totally deserved sympathy, and the outlook of the current generation of players.

Perhaps they don’t believe the research or the images of England’s World Cup-winning hooker which fill our newspapers, computers and TV screens? Whatever the reason, they seem totally unable to make the connection between the type of head trauma their actions could cause to each other and where that took the ever-growing band of former players who will soon fill the courts with legal action against rugby union’s governing bodies.

The alternative – that rugby union cannot be played without forceful impacts to the head – takes us to a place where none of us want to go, since it potentially spells the end of the sport since the players will become uninsurable. Something has to give.

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5 Comments
C
Coach 473 days ago

Whatever happens in the future the absolute main point for me is to have 15 players on the pitch for 80 minutes. I watched in a pub on Saturday and with the Scotland red card about a third stopped watching altogether. Send a player off but bring on another and after the game ban the player for however long AND hit his/her pocket. They have to stop spoiling the game as a contest with reds. It will end up costing in lost revenue from ticket sales...

J
John 475 days ago

Personally as a referee I see that a red card is the result of a players action, not me as a referee. It’s no different than ruling a knock on to me. I didn’t do the act that caused the red card so why would I care about it?

S
Spew_81 475 days ago

The suspensions need to be longer. A six week suspension should be six weeks; not reduced to three.

If the starting point was six weeks a red card would all but rule the offender out of an international tournament. Two reds would be the greater part of the tier two tournament. Adding a monetary fine (plus the lack of camp and playing fees) would also make players pay more attention.

Ultimately coaches have a big part to play. They pick abrasive players and demand aggression. They run the practices and pick the defense coaches. They provide the guidance to the players. If suspending and fining the coaches, as well, is what is required, then that is what needs to happen.

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