Subtract points, not players

Red and yellow card offences should result in the forfeit of points rather than the ejection of players, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Whether referees are getting it right or wrong is no longer the issue. Red and yellow cards are killing some potentially great rugby contests. Nobody wants to watch a match in which 14 plays 15 in a game that meanders towards one inevitable result.

Last Saturday’s clash in Kimberley is a case in point. Craig Joubert got it right when he red-carded Griquas centre Jonathan Francke for a reckless tip-tackle. Like so many other viewers, I watched the referee brandish the card, and agreed that it was the correct decision.

But the fact that Joubert got it right didn’t stop me from changing the channel. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who switched over to Zimbabwe versus South Africa, a low-key cricketing battle that promised to be less predictable than the affected rugby game in Kimberley.

That decision was made after just seven minutes. It hardly matters that a 14-man Griquas rallied and finished the game within seven points of the Sharks. The odds were always against them winning after they had lost a man in the opening stages.

This is not the first game to be ruined because of a red card. Who could forget the Test match between the All Blacks and Springboks in Auckland last year in which Bismarck du Plessis was sent from the field?

On that occasion, referee Romain Poite got it wrong, although the outcome was the same. Right or wrong, the contest was over from the moment it became a battle of 14 against 15.

There was a global outcry following that fixture, and while Poite was criticised, it was widely felt that rugby lovers the world over had been denied an epic 80-minute contest between the game’s two super powers.

This season, there has been a move by officials to stamp out dirty and cynical play. As seen by the opening Currie Cup fixture in Port Elizabeth, in which Jaco Peyper handed Western Province as many as three yellow cards, referees are employing a zero tolerance policy.

But at what cost? The game in Port Elizabeth was no better for WP losing those players, nor was the match in Kimberley helped by the ejection of Francke. Last year’s monumental Test in Auckland was marred by the decision to red card Du Plessis.

Cynical play should be punished, while foul play and dangerous tackles deserve maximum sanction. However, what the rugby authorities need to consider is how the current punishment of illegal acts impact on the contest. It’s time to explore a new system in which offending teams and players are punished sufficiently without the match deteriorating into a numbers game of 14 versus 15.

A yellow card should still result in an offending player spending 10 minutes in the sin bin. Red card offences should still warrant the ejection of a guilty player. The significant difference, however, should be the introduction of a substitute during the period of sanction. This is how we would ensure that 15 plays 15 for 80 minutes.

Furthermore, the referees need to hit the offending team where it hurts most: the scoreboard. Yellow and red card offences need to cost more than a penalty. Points should be deducted from a team’s total when they incur a card, perhaps five for a yellow, and as many as 10 for a red.

It sounds radical to award or deduct points on the basis of transgressions rather than tries or goal kicks. But when you think about it, is this not already the case?

Too many contests are being ruined or decided by the fact that one team has more players on the park than the other. How many commentators and scribes remark on the points conceded by an offending team when they are a man down, and how these points ultimately determine the final result? This has become the norm, not the exception.

The introduction of a new system would force rugby teams to clean up their act. There would be fewer instances of cynical play if teams knew that a yellow card would literally cost them points, rather than just a shot on goal for the opposition. There may also be less instances of tip-tackling, eye gouging, punching and all the rest if there is a realistic threat that points will be taken away in increments of 10.

Rugby needs to rethink many of its rules and regulations if it's to survive as a professional sport in the coming years. The powers that be need to start with the revision of its ejection policy, and consider how it is killing so many potentially great contests.

Photo: Andrew Cornaga/Photosport

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Jon Cardinelli