It is the radical rugby law trial that is deeply dividing opinion among some of the biggest names in the game and the debate is sure to continue for weeks and months to come. We are talking about the 20-minute red card rule that is being tested again in the southern hemisphere.
So how does it work? Well, when a player is sent off, that’s the end of his game. But, under test, he can be replaced by a teammate after 20 minutes. The initiative was first implemented last year in Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship. It was also incorporated into the Rainbow Cup, PRO14’s season-ending spin-off competition. He is now back for this year’s Super Rugby Pacific tournament.
READ MORE:Rugby Radical Law Trials Explained
The goal is to prevent games from being blighted as contests, which can happen if a team is reduced to 14 men for a long period of the match. But there is concern that by reducing punishment, it sends the wrong message about foul play. The view is that it is not a sufficient deterrent at a time when changing player behavior is being sought, particularly in terms of head-high tackles.
There have been reports that World Rugby has proposed testing the law globally, but has dismissed it as inaccurate. They point out that they were not the originators of the concept and say it is important to fully review the impact of the Super Rugby experiment. That trial Down Under is certainly causing a lot of reactions.
He was back in the spotlight last weekend when All Blacks second row Scott Barrett, the brother of Beauden and Jordie, was sent off while captaining the Crusaders against the Blues. There was widespread agreement that it was a red card infraction, with Barrett’s shoulder connecting with prop Alex Hodgman’s jaw when he came in for a hit and subsequently receiving a four-week suspension, confirming the officials’ call.
However, is a ban of just 20 minutes against the offending player’s team the right way to go? World Cup final referee Nigel Owens thinks not. He is a strong critic of the legal judgment.
Talking to the Telegraph, the Welshman said: “Personally I feel the 20-minute red card is not a good idea. If you want to create a change in player behavior and for coaches to change the way they train tackling, then you need to stand your ground and apply strict head contact penalties.
“Most people now obey the speed limit. Imagine if you only had a £10 or £20 fine for speeding instead of three points on your license and a £100 fine – there would be a lot more people less worried about getting caught. The most severe punishment makes you think twice. Those measures were introduced for road safety, much like red cards in rugby, to improve player safety.
“The part I don’t understand is that you will hear about players who are unlucky enough to be sent off, and therefore need a 20-minute card as a solution. Well, my answer would be that if a player is unlucky enough to be sent off, then he shouldn’t be sent off.”
Leicester manager Steve Borthwick agrees with Owens and that despite the fact that a player was sent off in both of Tigers’ Champions Cup games against Clermont Auvergne, leaving them permanently down to 14 men on each occasion.
“My opinion is that a red card is a red card”, said the former England second row. “This is how I was always raised. He watched soccer and if someone got a red card, he was off the field and didn’t come back. That has been my position.
“Overall now, with the TMO’s ability to review footage, there shouldn’t be too many things missed or too many mistakes made. There are clear protocols in place, so if someone does something that warrants a red card, an expulsion, then that should be for the game.”
The 20-minute red card trial has plenty of other critics. Dr Barry O’Driscoll of Progressive Rugby warns that he will put players at even greater risk of brain damage, saying: “If the motive is to make the game more commercially attractive, then that is completely wrong.”
Long-time Press Association rugby correspondent Andrew Baldock made his sentiments clear, saying: “A 20-minute red card is complete rubbish. How to get parole for your team even before they’ve sent you out. The Daily Mail’s Alex Bywater said a global test of the rule would be “a bad idea”, while South African journalist Jared Wright commented: “Why is the 20-minute red card showing up again? He’s terrible in Super Rugby and he was terrible in the Rainbow Cup.”
Irish rugby reporter Neil Treacy referred to Wallabies front row forward Tolu Latu as an illustration of why the law is the wrong way to go. Stade Francais hooker Latu is something of a serial offender and has just been suspended for 11 weeks following his latest indiscretion: a red card after he horribly hit a Racing 92 player in the air in the Cup of Champions.
Treacy wrote: “Tolu Latu is a fantastic example of how an orange/apricot/tangerine card would be a dangerous idea. Six yellow cards and two red cards already this season. You have not learned your lesson and you will not learn your lesson. A 20-minute red card would just be an open invitation.”
However, there are other prominent voices who support the rule, notably Sale and Bristol coaches Alex Sanderson and Pat Lam. Sanderson believes he will help combat the gray area that inconsistent officiating brings to the game.
“I think it’s a good thing because getting a red card changes the game irrevocably. It has to change because now it’s probably a bit too hard,” said the head of Sales.
“Referees don’t want to be the person who dictates the outcome of the game, but more and more they are becoming that. I understand why they have moved away from certain things, mitigating factors, that affect the red card decision, but there is still a lot of gray between a yellow and a red.
“What we have seen is an inconsistency in what constitutes a red card and what is the sanction of a red card. A 20-minute ban would greatly affect the game, but not irrevocably, so I think it’s probably a good idea. It gives you the ability to punish the gray areas more than the black and white of a yellow or red card.”
Giving his thoughts, Lam said : “Red cards used to be for foul play. Someone hitting someone or a really dangerous situation. But with current tackle height laws, we’re looking at a lot of things. The rule is probably a good idea with the number of red cards out there. Almost every week someone gets a red card.”
Wallaby’s trainer, Dave Rennie, is another fan of the law and has expressed disappointment that it hasn’t been tried worldwide.
“Some decisions that are made can have a massive impact on the game and maybe after the game it won’t be seen as serious. At least with 20 minutes you can even the numbers again. There is now a lot of emphasis on contact with the head, etc. There are going to be a lot of cards,” he said last year.
“People who mess up will be punished and spend a lot of time on the sidelines anyway. If we can get back to 15 on the 15th, ideally, that’s what we want. He had enormous support in the southern hemisphere, but not in the north. I do not understand that.
Taking the middle ground, commentator Sam Roberts has put forward a suggestion, saying: “Surely there is room for the TMO to decide if it’s a 20-minute red card and allow a replacement. Some reds really don’t deserve a break, others do. If we’re going to go down this road, let’s do it properly, using all the skills we have.”
And so the debate continues.