The hugely anticipated home and away Heineken Champions Cup matches approach, and we must hope. Hope that there will be no high tackles, no dangerous head collisions, no concussions, no red cards. In the current state of play that’s maybe optimistic, any such thoughts probably fall into the category marked ‘forlorn’.
In relation to the whole card process, the debate is in a very interesting place. People are searching for a solution to teams being reduced to 14, particularly in the very early stages of a match. The first thing to remember is that the southern hemisphere is trialing a 20-minute period for a red card, after which the offending player can be replaced. Obviously designed so that the spectacle will not be spoilt, and that the result won’t be decided by a sending-off, this approach has many admirers.
There are plenty, too, who are sitting firmly on the other side of the fence, and here’s why. The red card must be a deterrent, it exists to prevent extremely dangerous play, and to reduce concussions which damage the game a damn sight more than spoiling a spectacle.
Neither is the targeting of key players beyond the imagination, particularly if the ultimate sanction no longer carries the appropriate weight
Just consider for a moment England's Charlie Ewels's head-to-head smash on James Ryan. Ireland lost a very valuable player, and, under the 20 minute rule, Ewels would have been replaced. And did his dismissal really ruin the spectacle – sure, England ran out of steam eventually and lost, having made a great fist of things until the last 15 minutes. But it's a team sport, and that's what may happen if one player lets down the rest.
Exactly the same thing applies to Connacht's Tom Daly, whose recent shoulder to the head of Leinster's Ciarán Frawley was crass, and blatantly dangerous. If World Rugby ever decide to go along with allowing replacements for these redder than red cards, they would actually be working against what they are trying to achieve.
Most outhalves get a rough time of it as things stand, and it’s probably not too cynical to suggest that it would be an even rougher ride, if offenders knew they could be replaced. Neither is the targeting of key players beyond the imagination, particularly if the ultimate sanction no longer carries the appropriate weight, a sort of faded pink card won’t do the business.
The deterrent has already been reduced by the continuously paltry suspensions being handed out. Both Ewels and Daly received three weeks, with another potential week off for attending tackling technique classes, which, of course, should be an in-built requirement of all coaching, including elite. Not just another excuse to reduce the sentence.
These suspensions normally start at six weeks, but then there is the ‘mystifying’ 50 per cent reduction, nearly always awarded to a player when there is an apology, and a demonstration of remorse.
So, everybody apologises, sends texts to the injured opponent, turns up at the hearing in their Sunday best. And, with quivering voice no doubt, say “sorry”; it’s no more than a meaningless charade. Tennis player John McEnroe once screamed at officialdom, “you cannot be serious” but apparently World Rugby is.
That reduction is the first thing which must, itself, be binned, players would assuredly think twice if they were sidelined for more than a month – extra time out could also be added if the victim is put out of the game for longer. In other words, equate the length of suspension to the period of an injured player’s rehabilitation.
Playing against the Bulls, Munster's Alex Kendellen had lady luck to thank when landing on his head on top of a Bulls player who was on the ground. That slice of good fortune broke Kendellen's fall, otherwise there was every prospect of a horrible injury. He had been lifted by Bismarck du Plessis, who then tossed the Munster player over his shoulder sending him hurtling head-first towards the ground. Du Plessis received, yes, you've guessed it, just three weeks. What sort of a game does that speak to, you've really got to wonder? How the sentence did not reflect the danger of Du Plessis's action is beyond understanding.
Outcomes like these must be subject to hard questioning, and, while my understanding is that there is an appeals system in place, it doesn’t appear to be used. Here’s a very relevant, serious question: Is anybody judging the judge, is there no accountability, if not, why not?
Referees are under huge pressure, and certainly don't relish sending off players, so a third card might well see the 'red' becoming a rare species
While World Rugby continue to serenade us with their favourite ‘Player Welfare’ song, they must, simply must, do so much more to ensure that the punishment fits the crime. What’s happening now has no credibility, zilch.
As this all goes on, some are advocating strongly for the introduction of yet another card, maybe a ‘black’, maybe an ‘orange’. The suggestion is that it would be a sort of a rugby halfway house for certain offences, mirroring the 20-minute replacement proposal.
It may look very well until a little delving is done. Currently, TMO reviews can be long and arduous, while the officials sort out the difference between yellow and red. Add in a third option, and heaven knows how long it’d take. The definition, and decision, of what offence relates to what colour would be a splitting hairs nightmare.
Or maybe it wouldn’t. Referees are under huge pressure, and certainly don’t relish sending off players, so a third card might well see the ‘red’ becoming a rare species. It’s so important not to forget the reasons for its existence – an end to head collisions, and to concussion.
Despite the alternatives, the current card system is the measure which has the best chance of delivering the objectives, the purpose cannot be diminished – this may well become a hot potato to be passed around for quite a while yet. World Rugby mustn’t drop it, rather resist the heat.