Subscriber OnlyRugbyThe Whistleblower

When it comes to the 20-minute red card replacement, World Rugby should play it safe

The ugly side of rugby has not gone away, and the deterrent of a straight red card should not be diluted

In just a few weeks, the great and the good of World Rugby’s council will assemble for a key meeting. There has been no more important get-together since 2009, when the most radical of the southern hemisphere-driven experimental law variations (ELVs) were turned down, largely through the highly researched intervention of the RFU, and the IRFU.

Now, no less than then, there are very substantive law issues to be debated and conclusions reached. Foremost is the 20-minute red card replacement, which is used in the southern hemisphere, with a sent-off player replaced by a substitute after 20 minutes. This system does include the provision for a straight red with no replacement, but inevitably such sanctions are fast disappearing. The proposal before council is to move to a global trial, for which the unions down under have been lobbying hard.

The arguments in favour are mainly that a straight red ruins the spectacle and is not fair on teams or the paying spectator. The counterargument is that it is a necessary, severe deterrent in the fight to eliminate dangerous player behaviour.

There is a lot of talk about spectacle and safety, and how to find the right balance between the two ideals. But surely the latter must come first, every time. These are mutually exclusive ideals, and trying to balance them in some way is a highly improbable concept.


Then, in terms of spectacle, what exactly is wrong with things right now? We are watching riveting rugby in all competitions, the quality of play has been nothing short of stunning. But this season there are still atrocious acts being committed, on both sides of the equator. The ugly side of rugby has not gone away.

Planet Rugby has published a useful tally of red cards issued across all competitions in both hemispheres. Super Rugby Pacific has easily seen the most, relative to the number of matches played; it’s clearly not a good look for the proposal. As well as quantity, there is the question of the violence level involved.

The notorious rabbit punch, administered to the back of an opponent’s neck, has very real capability of causing catastrophic injury. It is outlawed in all combat sports. However, rugby recently saw Fijian Drua player Frank Lomani deliver a brutal ‘point of elbow’ hit to the neck of Rebels’ Josh Canham, who, on all fours, was a totally vulnerable target, unable to defend himself.

Referee Damon Murphy did indeed hand out a straight red, and supporters of the global trial may be tempted to use this as evidence in their favour. However, the decision, following a rabbit punch, is so blindingly obvious that it can’t be taken as an indicator of anything. Neither can a headbutt in the same match.

What has fast become the norm is for the referee to check the screen replays quickly, to decide if the offence passes the yellow card threshold. If so, he sends it to the foul play review officer in the bunker. When the bunker decision is to upgrade, it cannot be a straight red, and the 20-minute replacement comes along.

That’s precisely what happened, a week or so ago. Two Queensland players very comfortably passed the yellow threshold; one for a swinging arm to the head, the other for a hard shoulder to the head. There was no sign of the straight red that both deserved, confirming the worrying gulf that exists between north and south as to what are straight red offences.

Interestingly, World Rugby has also informed us that there is a comprehensive review of the disciplinary process taking place in which “a key consideration will be the potential to combine stronger off-field sanctions” with the 20-minute replacement. Perhaps it’s intended as a persuasive sweetener to get the proposal over the line, but there is no detail as yet and the word “potential is just a synonym for “possibility”.

There was plenty of opportunity in the south to implement tougher off-field sanctions in parallel with their replacement trial, but that hasn’t happened. As a result, there is an absence of any supporting data; so whatever effect they would have had is unknown.

While massive collisions have, inexorably, become part and parcel of the game, I believe it is not beyond the skills of the legislators to ensure that the head and brain are protected, whatever it takes.

Added to the debate must be the shocking, dispiriting results of Boston University’s research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy – severe brain damage found, postmortem, in young participants of collision sports, including rugby. Then, looming on the horizon is the legal action being taken by former players suffering from early dementia. All in rugby’s garden is, sadly, distinctly not rosy.

The legislators may consider the replacement issue in more favourable terms when the speed of the ball carrier’s movement does not allow the tackler much more than a nanosecond to bend into a lower position. New Zealand captain Sam Cane in the Rugby World Cup final comes to mind again. However, it is a very hard job to legislate for it, within the same framework covering head contact.

In 2009, some people considered that the north had won the ELVs battle, but that wasn’t the case, nor was it a south loss. The conclusions were based on demonstrated research. It is vitally important that the replacement red card does not become tangled up in them-against-us language.

That would distract from the huge responsibility that the World Rugby council has in this discussion. They must exercise extraordinary care when reaching a conclusion on this exceptionally vexed issue. “Play safe” might well be the best motto.