It now seems strange to recall rugby union without yellow and red cards, but until the late 1990’s the referee was armed solely with a whistle and, in extremis, the option to send off a serious miscreant.
In those long-forgotten days, a player being despatched for an early bath was something of a rarity. Rucking was vigorous, a nose-to-nose punch-up was just part of the game and a high tackle had to border on decapitation before it drew more than a penalty and a word with the captain.
As time has moved on, the use of the sin-bin has become very much part and parcel of the referee’s game management tool kit. But as World Rugby struggles to get its Japan 19 match officials to follow the pre-World Cup tackle directives, it seems apposite to question if referees view the red card in the same matter-of-fact way.
The newly-issued three-stage directions for assessing whether a high tackle or shoulder charge merits punishment, and at what level, should be simple for players to understand and equally straightforward for officials to apply.
However, even with the assistance of the touch judges and a TMO armed with multiple camera angles and slo-mo devices, time and again the first dozen World Cup matches have seen errors made.
The citings of Australian winger Reece Hodge and England centre Piers Francis underline this, Samoa could – and probably should – have played 50 minutes against Russia with 13 players, while the officials’ response to a number of other illegal challenges have fallen some distance below World Rugby’s new high-water line.
The world’s best officials are clearly struggling to get to grips with the new directive, and it seems that a cultural change in how the red card is viewed is urgently required.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 23, 2019
Although none are old enough to have officiated in the pre-card days, most officials have a deep-seated reluctance to issue a red, perhaps because of its likely significance on the outcome of the match.
The sentiment that a red card is reserved for something really heinous is ingrained in rugby culture. Two yellows is a different story – but rugby has never used red cards with the frequency football does.
To officials who prize man-management and communication skills, it may even be that giving a red card is subliminally seen as some kind of failure.
The sanctions for high tackles in Samoa versus Russia didn't reflect well on World Rugby after they vowed its match officials would improve following an inconsistent opening weekend in Japan
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 24, 2019
Until this barrier is overcome, World Rugby will not get the progress it seeks, and with the business end of the World Cup almost upon us, it is essential that we get conformity and consistency in this area.
Based on the most recent round of games, the ‘mea culpa’ World Rugby issued a week into the tournament in respect of its officials’ performance level has not had the desired effect. Might more drastic action – for instance the de-selection of an established big-name official – therefore drive the required change?
Ireland manager Joe Schmidt and captain Rory Best react after their side lost in a dramatic game against hosts Japan in the Rugby World Cup.
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