Gerry Thornley: Red cards a small price to pay to end high hits

For clampdown on high tackles to work the entire sport needs to be re-educated

In the 11th minute of the last meeting between Ireland and New Zealand, at the Aviva Stadium in November 2016, Robbie Henshaw carried into contact with Sam Cane. The point of Cane's right shoulder connected with Henshaw's jaw. Still photographs showed Cane's right arm was perfectly straight and Henshaw had not dipped into the tackle in any way.

Henshaw was removed from the pitch, diagnosed with concussion, and didn’t play again for three weeks. Cane was not yellow-carded or sent off, but was cited subsequently for an alleged dangerous tackle.

The Disciplinary Committee, chaired by Antony Davies (England), alongside Derek Bevan (Wales) and John Doubleday (England), viewed and listened to all the evidence and concluded that the flanker's actions "had been accidental and that he had not therefore committed an act of foul play". The citing complaint was therefore not upheld.

Whether accidental or not, the game of rugby, you felt, had a major problem if it permitted such high hits, and not just with the optics that went with such an example in the elite test arena, but given the consequences and the sport’s issues with concussion.


This is not to say it was a malicious act by Cane, or to single him out. Such “hits” or tackles had become increasingly commonplace in every country where rugby was played, and regularly went unpunished until quite recently. Maybe it was a tipping point. Accidental has been taken out of the equation.

Fast forward two years, and all has changed, changed utterly. Witness Danny Cipriani, by no stretch of the imagination a dirty player, being red-carded for catching Rory Scannell's jaw with his shoulder in the recent Munster-Gloucester game. Cipriani was holding his ground and Scannell dipped slightly into him. Cipriani wasn't leaning into contact with his shoulder as Sonny Bill Williams had done to Anthony Watson when red-carded in the second Lions test in Wellington. The impact didn't seem as hard as Cane's had been with Henshaw.

Changed climate

Yet such is the changed climate in light of World Rugby's clampdown on high hits, and punishment of any contact in the tackle or breakdown area with an opponent over the line of the shoulders, that the co-commentator on Virgin Media's live coverage, Alan Quinlan, was immediately in no doubt.

“That is nasty. It’s a direct shoulder into the face. I think he could be in trouble here. Some serious trouble. By the letter of the law, that’s a red card.”

Sure enough, the French referee Alexandre Ruiz informed the two captains and Cipriani: "I have no option but a red card." Cipriani took his punishment without complaint and apologised to Scannell. Even Peter O'Mahony looked a little nonplussed. No harm was meant, and no one doubted that.

At half-time the pitchside pundits, Shane Jennings and Ronan O'Gara, took a slightly different view from Quinlan. Jennings wished that "common sense" had prevailed. A slightly "shocked" O'Gara concurred, and lamented that there is "no consistency".

World Rugby has a duty of care to those who play the sport and has to be seen to take drastic steps

That it applied in the same match, and indeed the same half, that Billy Twelvetrees's high tackle on Joey Carbery was deemed merely worthy of a penalty, compounded the frustration.

Lack of consistency in officiating is a constant refrain in many team sports; yet, given they are human, officials are no more likely to be consistent in performance than players, perhaps even less so in light of any change in emphasis to existing laws. Ruiz had no choice.

Above all else World Rugby, and its officials, have a duty of care to those who play the sport and, furthermore, in the current climate it has to be seen to take drastic steps. There are bigger issues here than a match being distorted by a red card. Just possibly, the introduction of a halfway house “black card” a la GAA, whereby the offending player is removed from the match but can be replaced, wouldn’t have the same impact.

New diktat

In the first two rounds of the Heineken Champions Cup there have been 17 yellow cards, four less than at the same stage last season, but there have been two red cards compared to none at this point last season, as well as two other citings and suspensions, in accordance with World Rugby’s new diktat.

Cipriani was suspended for three weeks and the Castres number eight Maama Vaipulu was suspended for six weeks after being sent off for striking the Exeter hooker, Luke Cowan-Dickie, to the head with his shoulder.

The Toulouse number eight Jerome Kaino was suspended for five weeks after being cited for striking the head of Bath centre Jamie Roberts with his shoulder, and the Toulouse prop, Lucas Pointud, was suspended for four weeks after being cited for striking the Bath prop, Nathan Catt, with his head at a ruck. It's doubtful whether all four punishments would have happened at the same juncture of this competition last season.

For this clampdown to work, and high hits to be removed as much as possible from the game, perhaps the whole sport needs to be re-educated, beginning with defence coaches and players, from the training grounds to matches, as well as referees, commentators, pundits and spectators.

If that means a few more red cards and 15 v 14 scenarios along the way, it has to be considered a price worth paying.