Owen Doyle: Red card replacements would let sinners off the hook

Players who are sent off can be replaced after 20 minutes under new Rainbow Cup trial

Scotland’s Zander Fagerson is shown a red card by referee Matthew Carley. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Scotland’s Zander Fagerson is shown a red card by referee Matthew Carley. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

Let’s have a debate. Who is for, who is against?

“A player who receives a red card may be replaced after 20 minutes.”

That is the gist of the law trial in the Southern Hemisphere, now approved for the Pro14 Rainbow Cup.

Clearly, World Rugby must eradicate all foul play head contacts, the future is at stake. The result, right now, is red cards. But, don’t shoot the referee messenger. Many will see that the fault lies with players and coaches who have been terribly slow to get the message, and to change behaviour. A lot of reds could be avoided.

But these cards do work. Following the dismissals of Peter O’Mahony and Zander Fagerson in the Six Nations, we have seen very few similar offences. The prevalent dangerous head-high tackles we saw in the last World Cup have also greatly diminished.

Take-outs in the air, frequent a few years ago, are now rare events. Coaches railed against the campaign to do away with them, until eventually they shrugged their shoulders and changed things.

There is concern that such replacements will see key players targeted. Some will throw up their arms in horror at that suggestion, but what was going on after Johnny Sexton left the field in Exeter recently? His replacement Ross Byrne was subjected to some very heavy hits and Jonny Hill should have seen yellow.

The road to eradication, as distinct to appeasement, is the sanction which reduces a team permanently to 14 players

If Byrne had failed a HIA as a result, and with Exeter restored to 15 after 10 minutes, Leinster would have had both ‘10s’ crocked, and might well have lost. Would that heavy hitting really have lessened if the ‘bin’ period was longer?

France will head to the World Cup with two fine ‘10s’, Romain Ntamack and Mathieu Jalibert. Use this replacement red card, and what are the chances that both will finish the tournament? The quest for winner’s medals, and financial rewards, will be, politely put, without compromise.

Not so long ago, Sexton was pursued in Paris, knocked all over the place. Opponents, knowing he’s vulnerable, put duty of care neatly aside, willing to take ‘yellow card’ risks to neutralise him. The current red card prevents greater risk-taking; the new ‘replacement’ model won’t do the same job.

Let’s visualise something: a nasty piece of foul play ends Joey Carberry’s or Sexton’s involvement in a vital match. As he stumbles off, the offender is red carded. The replacement immediately starts limbering up, runs on 20 minutes later, and maybe scores the winning try. The lack of natural justice, and the optics, will be appalling, the crowd incensed. The sport diminished.

The road to eradication, as distinct to appeasement, is the sanction which reduces a team permanently to 14 players, the fear of damaging your own team’s prospects being greater than the now non-existent care for an opponent.

Everybody wants evenly matched contests, which red cards can put paid to, but not always. If that is the price for eradicating concussion, and the terrifying prospect of early dementia, of which there are growing confirmed case numbers, here’s a question central to the debate: Those against the motion ask is that not a price which must be paid in full, no option whatsoever; and what will the other side answer?

Peter O’Mahony leaves the pitch after he was sent off during Ireland’s Six Nations defeat to Wales. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Peter O’Mahony leaves the pitch after he was sent off during Ireland’s Six Nations defeat to Wales. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

That camp will counter that 20 minutes is enough time to be a man down, believing eye gouging, head hits, smashing into breakdowns, deserve a replacement. There are other consequences too, for example if a player is sin-binned for a technical offence just as the red carded replacement arrives, his team will now have the extra player. It’s a bit trickier than it first seems - optics again.

Some discuss the addition of the Gaelic football black card. First casualty would be the 9 o’clock News moving to 10 o’clock, with TMO-referee discussions reaching preposterous new heights. The red card will then face extinction, as all sorts of available mitigation chooses ‘black.’ It wouldn’t work.

Rewarding a lineout to a team which chooses, in open play, to kick the ball dead, is insanity

Law trials are well tracked by World Rugby, measured carefully. Statistics will be produced to demonstrate the outcome of this trial, and have red cards increased, or not. But figures on a page, or attractive pie charts, can never provide context.

The Rainbow Cup will also see the goal-line drop out, when an attacking ball carrier is held up over the goal-line. This rugby league ‘innovation’ rewards a turnover based on a hair’s breadth, a finger width; crazy. Worries about continuous pick and drives would better be solved by moving the attacking five-metre scrum back to the ‘22.’

Owen Doyle is a former Test referee and former director of referees with the IRFU

Next, the captain’s challenge, permitted when a try is scored, for foul play, or for any decision in the last five minutes. Get it right, it’s retained; if not, it’s gone. But here come yet more delays, as key decisions are reviewed. It seems a last minute breakdown penalty could be sent by a captain for review, and a potential decision change. If there is a decision change, can that be re-challenged? Whatever. There is trouble ahead.

Thankfully, we will not see the target-kicking circus trial; rewarding a lineout to a team which chooses, in open play, to kick the ball dead, is insanity. Again, from the rugby league handbook, it flies in the face of continuity. Or, as Ronan O’Gara succinctly explains, KBA - keep the ball alive.

Play ROG-KBA, and there’s absolutely no need for radical change, which anyway never solves a negative, kicking, coaching approach.

Soon, it’ll be tapped free kicks for everything - with defences strung out across the pitch, rather than bound into a scrum, that’ll be spaceless fun.

These league, and scrum-eliminating proposals, must be voted down - “beware of Greeks bearing gifts.” Especially if they’re from Australia where rugby union struggles failingly for popularity and audience.

Finally, tournaments in the Northern Hemisphere don’t play sequentially, players moving to and fro’ between the Pro14, Champions Cup and Six Nations. Leinster will play these trials, before reverting to normality when they travel to La Rochelle, and hopefully further. Not sure that’s wise.

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