Kirwan is wrong, red cards are here to stay

Suggestions that red cards ruin contests and need to be thrown out of Test rugby have to stop, writes DYLAN JACK.

This past weekend, in a heated fourth and final Bledisloe Cup match between the Wallabies and All Blacks in Brisbane, each side lost one man to a red card and one man each to a yellow card.

However, it is very difficult to argue against the red cards shown by referee Nic Berry to All Blacks prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi and then debutant Wallabies flank Lachlan Swinton.

That left spectators watching a 14 vs 14 Test match, which has not sat well with a number of ex-players.

Tim Horan, the former Wallabies centre, tweeted during the match that red-carded players should be allowed to be replaced after 10 minutes in the sin bin.

On Tuesday evening, former All Blacks John Kirwan and Mils Muliaina appeared on the regular panel show ‘The Breakdown’ where they blasted the red-card protocols and suggested that they should be removed from the game because it ruins the spectacle for fans.

Unfortunately, when one considers World Rugby’s emphasis on player safety, both Kirwan and Muliaina’s comments were wide of the mark.

‘Absolutely ridiculous,’ Kirwan began when asked for his opinion. ‘I did not sleep when I got home, I was so angry. It’s not the ref’s fault. Mitigating factors, do we know what they are? The player sort of bending? With the Ofa red card, I believe that there were mitigating factors.’

In the current decision-making framework for high tackles, World Rugby has listed five clearly defined mitigating factors for deciding on a sanction (which can be easily found by doing a simple Google search):

  • The tackler makes a definite attempt to change height in an effort to avoid ball-carrier’s head
  • Ball-carrier suddenly drops in height (e.g. from earlier tackle, trips/falls, dives to score)
  • Tackler is unsighted prior to contact
  • ‘Reactionary’ tackle, immediate release
  • Head contact is indirect (starts elsewhere on the body and then slips or moves up resulting in minor contact to the ball-carrier’s head or neck)

Going by these five factors, one can see that referee Berry was left with little choice but to show Tu’ungafasi a red card.  The same can be said of Swinton’s tackle on Sam Whitelock. Unlike the tackle on Wright, Whitelock does appear to dip slightly, but it wasn’t enough to be considered a mitigating factor.

‘Our game does not need red cards. I don’t think there is anyone in our game who goes out intentionally to hurt someone,’ Kirwan continued. ‘So, if it is a red card, they go off and someone replaces them. People have paid good money to watch a game of rugby with fifteen-a-side. ‘

Unfortunately, there are many examples of players intentionally hurting the opposition. One only needs to think back to the 2019 World Cup quarter-finals, where France lock Sébastien Vahaamahina was correctly sent off for dangerously throwing an elbow into Aaron Wainwright’s jaw at a maul. It would have been an injustice for Vahaamahina to stay on the field.

Kirwan’s suggestion of substituting a player was backed up by Muliaina, who said: ‘Anything that hits the head, is a red card. It’s an automatic red card. I think we get rid of the red cards and perhaps put them on report. Or I would take them off for 20 minutes and bring someone else on.’

The reality of the professional game means that even the substitution solution is open to exploitation. If you as a coach know that your opposition relies heavily on a single player, what’s to stop you from cynically getting one of your players to take that player out early in the match and cop a red card for it? You can then substitute your red-carded player, while the opposition has lost one of their key players. That, unfortunately, is the win-at-all-costs nature of Test rugby.

Sadly, there didn’t seem to be much emphasis from either panellist on player safety. Kirwan seemed irate that World Rugby had taken a stance on emphasising tackle height and said that it should instead ‘make some decisions for the entertainment of the game, for the fans’.

Ironically, Kirwan added that ‘lives are at stake’, with reference to players losing income due to being sent off, forgetting that lives are also at stake if rugby is not made safer.

These comments come just three months after New Zealand-born former England captain Dylan Harley opened up on how concussion still affects his everyday life. Concussion is a very real and very serious issue, which leaves a lasting physical and emotional impact long after players have hung up their boots.

Finally, Muliaina said: ‘Staying along those lines rather than having something in place where one team’s down and it automatically ruins the whole Test match. From the time he pulls that red card out of his pocket, it’s gone.’

Forgive me if I am wrong, but at no stage – not even in the 10 minutes between Tu’ungafasi and Swinton’s red card – did either side gain dominance. The fourth Bledisloe Cup Test was not ruined by a red card, it made the Test match all the more memorable and intriguing.

Neither did the red card ruin the contest between France and Wales in 2019. Wales ended up winning the match by only one point thanks to a try in the final five minutes.

Simply put, red cards don’t ruin matches. When applied consistently, they allow a line to be drawn as far as discipline goes. As long as players continue to disregard their tackle technique, red cards will and should continue.

Photo: Chris Hyde/Getty Images

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Dylan Jack