Rugby’s Red Mist
With a recent spate of red cards gripping rugby, Online Sport Editor Harry Scott-Munro looks at whether the excessive pursuit of player safety is now having a negative impact on the quality of the game?
Remember a time when red cards used to be for intentional foul play? For moments such as Campese Ma’afu’s uppercut on Tom Youngs or Dylan Hartley swearing at referee Wayne Barnes and calling him a cheat in the Premiership final. How much things have changed…?
After 12 rounds of this seasons Gallagher Premiership, there have already been 9 red cards, 5 of which came on 20th February, including three in the Leicester vs Wasps match. Last season saw a record 11 red cards given in a season, the most ever in the 22-year history of the English top-flight in its current form. Only this weekend, Gloucester winger Ollie Thorley was red carded for head-on-head contact, from an incident that left him knocked out and concussed, having to leave the field. There was no excessive force or intentional malicious intent and, with the player who has come off the worst from a normal rugby incident being the one red carded, it is not a good look for the game.
Over the 22 completed seasons, there has been an average of 5.5 red cards per season, meaning that this season has already exceeded the average per season.
In the Rugby World Cup, the 2019 tournament in Japan saw a record 8 red cards, double the previous tournament high of 1995 and 1999 and higher than the totals of the previous four world cups combined.
Whilst fully understanding of the need for player welfare and safety, rugby is and always has been a contact sport. Collisions are an accepted part of the game, as is the risk of injury.
The stories of early onset dementia that have hit the likes of Steve Thompson and Alix Popham are truly heartbreaking to read and more research must be done into the long-term impact that continued head injuries have on players.
However, player safety and concussion protocols are better than they have ever been. The return to play system that comes into force for players with confirmed concussion symptoms makes sure that they are looked after and protected as much as they can possibly be, from their own eagerness to play more than anything else. These protocols simply just weren’t in place when the likes of Thompson and Popham were playing the game. They can always be adapted and improved, that is without doubt. One such view on this is that if a shoulder to the head, as we saw from Peter O’Mahony on Thomas Francis in the 6 Nations opener in Cardiff, is deemed to have had enough force to the head to warrant a red card, why is the player on the receiving end not removed from the field for a precautionary HIA (Head Injury Assessment.)
O’Mahony and Zander Fagerson both saw red against Wales in this year’s 6 Nations for similar looking incidents where the shoulder made contact with a player’s head in the ruck. Exeter Chiefs club captain Jack Yeandle saw red for a similar incident against Sale last weekend as well. However, none of these were intentional, with no malice intended.
By the letter of the law, all three instances mentioned above were a red card, but this misses the wider point. If red cards are becoming common place within the game and we are, as we currently are, expecting at least one red card per weekend, something needs to be done to stop that loss of a player from killing the game off as a competitive spectacle.
Yellow cards, for mid-level foul play, have always acted as a strong deterrent, with a players team penalised for their ill-discipline by that player spending ten minutes off the pitch. But losing a player to a non-deliberate act for the majority of a match, takes out the competitiveness of the occasion.
Many have floated the idea of an ‘in-between,’ with the idea of an orange card being banded around. In this scenario, an act of non-deliberate foul play, such as a shoulder to the head, would see a player receive an orange card; meaning they must leave the field for the remainder of the match, but that a replacement player can come on in their place, so the team still has a maximum cohort of players, whilst the player guilty of a non-deliberate act of foul play, still pays the price of not being able to play the remainder of the match.
This way, genuine deliberate acts of foul play can still receive a red card, with the player and their team paying the ultimate price, with the orange card still acting as a deterrent to try and make players lower the height of the contact.
Admittedly, this could lead to a murky line between non-deliberate acts of foul play and whether a play meant malicious intent or not. However, referees already look at a checklist of mitigating factors when reviewing an incident to determine whether the sanction should be a yellow or a red card, adding one more option for them won’t confuse things too much.
Player welfare and safety must always remain at the forefront of thinking when it comes to the sport. However, rugby with no collisions is simply not the same sport. This brilliant sport, that has been around since William Webb Ellis first picked up a ball in 1823, nearly 200 years ago, has rolled with the punches before. Now, it needs to stand its ground and remember the contact nature and risk factor, that have always been at its heart.