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Why Nigel Owens won't support the 20-minute red card law trial

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Sportsfile/Corbis/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

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Retired Test referee Nigel Owens has doubled down on his fears that the 20-minute red card in rugby won’t change player behaviour. It was a few weeks ago in an exclusive RugbyPass interview when the international game centurion official outlined his dislike of the law currently being trialled in Super Rugby Pacific, insisting that a red card must be a red card for the remainder of the game no matter what minute the sending-off took place in. 

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It has since emerged this week that World Rugby would consider introducing the 20-minute red card as a global law trial, expanding its use from Super Rugby where a dismissed player can currently be tactically replaced by a substitute after 20 minutes.

That has been discussed before and will be discussed again,” said World Rugby chief executive Alan Gilpin. “It would be great if more competitions, even in a closed trial, would use it because that would give us more of an overview of the effect it would have on the game.”

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Owens, though, was ahead of the game – and Gilpin – when telling RugbyPass in an interview published on March 27 that red cards are there for a reason and that this punishment must be supported or it would damage the game. He was speaking in the wake of the red card brandished to England’s Charlie Ewels after 82 seconds of the Guinness Six Nations defeat to Ireland where numerous commentators and fans claimed the game was ruined by the early sending off.  

“People need to stop thinking that red cards ruin games because a red card is given for a reason when clearly there is an act of foul play or recklessness, and if the referee gives a correct red card then it’s irrelevant whether it ruins the game or not,” said Owens last month.  

“It didn’t in this instance [Ewels], it probably added to the game. People say, ‘It’s a bit of an unlucky red card’. Well, if it’s an unlucky red card then it shouldn’t be a red card. A red card is nailed on and that red card was nailed on. You can say the player didn’t try to do it – that is irrelevant. 

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“If you’re driving down the road doing 50 miles an hour in a 30-mile speed limit and you knock somebody over, the fact that you didn’t try to knock them over is irrelevant. You were doing something you shouldn’t have been doing. If we are at a stage where we are discussing red cards as being ‘oh that’s unlucky, that’s accidental’, then it shouldn’t be a red card, end of story. 

“This was a nailed-on red card, it didn’t ruin the game and people talking about this orange card, if you’re going to have a player sent off and in 20 minutes you get another player coming on instead of him, that isn’t going to change player behaviour. It isn’t going to make coaches really hit home to players you have to change tackle techniques because if you’re going to be back up to 15 men for 60 minutes compared to being down to 14 men for 80, I don’t think that is enough of a deterrent for player behaviour. 

“So a red card is a red card for a reason and you shouldn’t be replaced because the Irish player [James Ryan] left the field and didn’t play the following weekend. He was out of the tournament so player safety is paramount. Yes, the red card was a big call at the beginning of the game but the referee was 100 per cent correct.”

Nearly three weeks later, Owens has now repeated his stance following Gilpin’s admission that World Rugby is considering expanding the 20-minute red card trial. Writing in a UK Telegraph column, he said: “Governing bodies need to stay strong on those acts of recklessness and thuggery. We have already seen how strict policing of certain offences can lead to change with tip tackles over a decade ago. There has been a total change of behaviour from players and those acts are now very rare.

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“The last thing the sport needs is a situation where a player runs in and headbutts an opponent in the opening minutes, only for the offender to then be replaced 20 minutes later by a substitute. In situations like that, your team does not deserve to go back to 15 players.

“Make a clear decision between whether foul play is accidental or reckless and then award the appropriate yellow or red card. A 20-minute red card merely papers over the cracks. It is totally wrong, and if we go down that route then rugby is going to be in trouble.”

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