As seen last week with World Rugby’s optional law changes for the Covid-19 pandemic, change isn’t always popular and Super Rugby’s plan to trial different innovations in the upcoming Super Rugby Aotearoa competition has also been met with some rancour. 

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While the proposals for a golden point in tied matches and stricter refereeing at the breakdown have not caused a great uproar, the change to the red card punishment has. The new competition will see a red-carded player removed from the game completely but they can be replaced after 20 minutes, meaning the new law sits somewhere between a yellow card and a conventional red. 

This has proven to be somewhat polarising, with as many people for as against such a game-changing law. The greatest concern is that the significance of the red card has now been devalued. With the punishment significantly reduced, the feeling is that the safety of the game could be compromised, with some even suggesting this could lead to the tactic of targeting players early on. 

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This may be a far stretch, as it would still be detrimental to the offending team, but the punishment will undoubtedly be less severe and the consequences of foul play will not be as calamitous. While it may seem inconsequential compared to the possible dangers of this change, there are fears that this may damage the spectacle of the game. 

Yellow cards usually force the punished team to adopt a conservative approach during the ten-minute spell, so 20 minutes may lead to large swathes of negative play during the game. However, there is always that risk if a team is reduced to 14 players for the remainder of the game. 

Moreover, World Rugby actually addressed this issue last week in their optional laws with the idea of an orange card, although it was not well received. That was slightly different from Super Rugby’s idea, but was nonetheless another halfway house between a yellow and red. 

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Equally there are those that agree with this red card sub idea, purely because it maintains the spectacle of two even teams going head-to-head. 

The draconian approach that officials have taken in recent years has certainly irked some. The 2019 World Cup saw as many red cards – nine – as the previous five tournaments combined, which indicates this stricter approach, particularly regarding the tackle and entry to rucks. 

Not only will this new red card ruling allow the punished team to remain competitive, but it avoids the risk of ruining a game for fans, which is integral to the product of sport as a whole. 

The focus is now moving towards punishing the player, rather than the team and those watching. It’s worth noting that all but one team that had a player red-carded at the RWC lost their match. 

While some will argue that that is the point of the card, and teams should be punished as well, the wide variety of red card offences today creates a great deal of complexity. For instance, Sebastien Vahaamahina’s wanton and despicable elbow to Aaron Wainwright in the quarter-final was so unnecessary that perhaps the team as a whole should rightly pay the price to ensure acts like that are reduced. 

Conversely, a poorly timed tackle, such as Tomas Lavanini’s on Owen Farrell in Argentina’s contest with England, was just a case of poor technique rather than any malice, which is why there are those that appreciate the intentions of Super Rugby in making sure only the player – and not the team – is gravely punished. 

Overall, the feeling is these law changes are a sign of Super Rugby kowtowing to the complaints that red cards ruin matches rather than emphasising the message that red cards are there to serve as a deterrent against dangerous play. 

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