Johnny Watterson: Diluting of red card punishment sends out wrong message

Current trial that allows a replacement for a sent off after 20 minutes is wrong-headed and dangerous.

Demanding no less than arterial spray or a lopped off arm in the name of escape or distraction, the film Gladiator shows Maximus, a kind of ancient openside flanker turning to the crowd in the Colosseum after an orgy of high tackles.

“Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained?” he screams. “Is this not why you are here?”

As an astute marketing man and the main lead in the entertainment business of the day, Caesar’s favourite general had quite the canny read on what was trending in ancient Rome. He understood why people came to see him and he tried to give them what they wanted.

This week it emerged World Rugby were considering globally trialing a red card makeover, where players shown it would be replaced by another player after 20 minutes of being a man down. It is already used in Super Rugby Pacific and the Rugby Championship.

Some would argue that the change is likely to make dangerous rugby more permissive; a point of view the governing body would refute.

World Rugby chief executive Alan Glipin explained that although the law change is being trialed, they need to monitor the effects such an adjustment would have before any wholesale introduction.

“We need to see more of the data to see whether that strikes the balance between safety and spectacle,” he said.

It appears the burghers of Pembroke Street in Dublin are not entertained by an unbalanced rugby game, especially if the red card is shown at the beginning of the match as it was at Twickenham in this year's Six Nations Championship.

The rub is that rugby has always understood the value of a spectacle. Its virtues are good faith, character, pluck, bravery, tenacity, character, mettle, collisions and fearlessness. But malice too.

You also wonder what those fine endearments mean to James Ryan or Ben Moxham and whether they think the rugby spectacle is worth just 20 minutes of game time from Charlie Ewel's England or Juan Cruz Mallia's Toulouse.

Three weeks

England secondrow Ewels was banned for three weeks after his 82-second sending-off for a high tackle on Ryan in the Six Nations clash with Ireland last month.

The incident sent the Leinster lock to the ground. Shaken when he got to his feet after receiving treatment, Ryan was withdrawn from the match.

An independent inquiry found “the act of foul play was reckless as a result of the player’s poor tackle technique” and noted that Ewels admitted his tackle had been worthy of a red card.

What we don’t know is what Ryan’s doctors know. We don’t know how severe the head injury was and we don’t know, other than failing, how he performed in the subsequent Head Injury Assessment (HIA). We don’t know when he is likely to return to the game.

What we do know is Ryan has had several head injuries before and that he has not played competitive rugby since the incident. We also know he is not included in the Leinster squad to face Connacht in the second leg of their European Cup match on Friday, which will bring to 35 the number of days he has not played.

In Le Stadium, Toulouse last weekend Mallia left his side a man down when he was sent-off in the 11th-minute for upending opposite number, 20-year-old Moxham, as the Ulster winger leapt to claim a high ball.

Moxham also sustained a concussion and is not available for Ulster’s return game against the French side on Saturday as he continues to follow return to play protocols. Ulster has not said when the Larne player is likely to return.

Had the Rugby Championship red card rule been in play replacements for Ewels and Mallia would have been on the pitch after 20 minutes. The point isn’t whether permanent removal with no replacements made the matches better or worse spectacles but more fundamentally how it greater protects injured players such as Ryan and Moxham.

It's could also be used as a cheaters charter. In the zero-sum game of winning and losing how many coaches would sacrifice a forward for 20 minutes to awkwardly take influencers such as Ireland captain Johnny Sexton or French scrumhalf Antoine Dupont out of the match and potentially out of a tournament.

If there is an option available to win, teams would not be professional if they did not consider using it.

Any such change would also be ringing with hypocrisy. The sport that purports to take head injuries and player welfare seriously considering how to reduce the sanctions against teams for illegally causing injury is like announcing a clamp down on white collar crime and simultaneously reducing the prison time for those corporations caught stealing.

“Have you not seen the Colosseum Spaniard,” asks the slave trader Proximo as his eyes light up and he launches into a mystical nether world where Gladiator pain and suffering are virtues.

Rugby understands the violence of the sport is a defining characteristic. It makes rugby what it is and not something else. It knows it can never lose that edge integral to the game, it exists alongside its other faithful values.

But competing for 20 minutes with 14 players for a team that destroys a career, that’s what is dreamed up when the integrity of the game and ability to fill the coliseum assumes greater importance than the health of the players.