Semisi Masirewa was sent off minutes before halftime due to a “dangerous tackle” which resulted in Bernard Foley landing on his neck – though many felt the incident deserved a yellow card at worst. Coaches from both the Sunwolves and the Waratahs lamented the impact the red card had on the game, ruining any chance of a fair contest. Whilst the Waratahs ultimately won the match 77-25, their lead was only six points lead prior to Masirewa’s ejection. Masirewa has subsequently been banned for three matches, showing the increased importance being placed on the safety of players by SANZAAR (and, by extension, World Rugby).
Of course, this is not the first time a red card and resulted in a fair amount of public outcry – nor will it be the last. Benjamin Fall’s ejection from the second test match between New Zealand and France in June sparked huge debate regarding rugby’s punitive system as a whole, World Rugby’s selective vocalisation regarding on-field refereeing decisions and, once again, the rules concerning mid-air collisions. Whilst saying that game was ruined due to the red card may be a tad over-zealous (the poor quality of play by all involved was the cause of that), the contest between France and the All Blacks was certainly all but over before the even the first quarter had come to a close.
In fact, it’s becoming all too common for refereeing decisions to be the biggest discussion point coming out of professional matches. Whilst, more often than not, the referee has made the best decision on the day, this is rarely of little consolation to the punters – especially in the situation of a circumstantial red card. Rugby is a sport with many complex and technical rules, which means that referee discussion is always going to be fair game once the match is over, but it shouldn’t consistently be the dominating point in the post-match debate.
Red cards, by their very nature, eliminate any fairness in a game of rugby. There are times when this unfairness may be warranted – primarily when a player has committed an act of foul play. There are also times, however, where red cards are disproportionately punitive to the team who has incurred the card. Fall’s red card is just one example of this – his ‘carelessness’ caused his team to have their backs against the wall for the remainder of the match.
Rugby is a spectator sport, and whilst most spectators want to see penalties dealt out fairly, they also want to see tight, edge-of-your-seat contests between the two teams on show. This begs the question, are yellow and red cards sufficient to cover all disciplinary action in a rugby match?
Borrowing from the little-known sport of bandy, World Rugby could look at introducing a blue card to the game for circumstances where a yellow card is too lenient, but where issuing a red card could have a disproportionately hefty impact on the match as a whole, due to the actions of one player. Not be confused with the blue card which is currently doing the rounds in New Zealand rugby (given to a player who the referee has suspected has incurred a concussion), a blue card in bandy acts as a hybrid between the red and yellow cards of rugby.
In bandy, a blue carded player is ejected for the remainder of the game. However, after a ten-minute period the blue carded player can be replaced. This means that the team that receives the blue card will be a man down for only 10 minutes, but the blue carded player cannot return to the game even after the 10 minutes expire.
Every single player on the rugby field has very important roles to play in a match, and the impact of losing any one player is always going to be significant. Rugby is all about systems – on both attack and defence. Removing one of the wholly interdependent parts of this system can bring the whole thing crashing down. In football, a team can operate much the same when down a man, but this is not the case in rugby. Removing a player from the game permanently changes how a team has to operate, and this makes it very difficult to effectively compete when short a man.
As a team sport, it does make sense that the team as a whole is punished due to the actions of one player, but a red card can sometimes take this too far. In situations where a team is persistently infringing it may make sense for the team to be punished, but when one player commits an act of foul play you could make the argument that the team shouldn’t have to sacrifice their shot at winning just because of the careless individual’s actions.
The other major issue with red cards is that their impact is severely changed based on when the red card is dished out. A 65th-minute sending off is naturally going to be significantly less damaging to a team than a 10th-minute ejection. From game to game the effects of a red card can change dramatically, which means that the punishment is not uniform across the board.
A blue card would go some way to ensuring that a rugby match is not ruined due to one player’s mistake. The team the carded player represents may lose some traction in the ten minutes the player is off the field, but at least at the end of that period, both teams would be on square footing moving forward (and the infringing player is still punished). Arguably, more importantly, a fantastic contest is not ruined and a rugby match can continue to be a great spectacle even if one player does make a dreadful error.
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