Rugby must give red card changes the sin bin

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Content warning: this article includes reference to harmful stereotypes of mental health which some readers may find upsetting.

Following their trial in SANZAAR’s Super Rugby Championship last year, the 20-minute red card policy is set to be continued. This begs the question, are 20-minute red cards desirable and worth implementing throughout the sport?

For those who are unaware, the current rules state that a player given a red card must leave the pitch and cannot be replaced by their team. The trial presently in place allows teams to bring another player on to the field after 20 minutes to replace the red carded player. This was implemented in the southern hemisphere international tests last year at the behest of their Unions.

Supporters of the change claim that it will make the game more competitive, dynamic and interesting to watch. On the surface this has some merit. In the last Six Nations Championship, Ireland played more minutes against 14 men than full sides, leading to one-sided walk overs. The balance of power on the field is shifted dramatically by a red card.

Proponents of the change say that limiting the other side’s numerical advantage to 20 minutes makes the punishment more proportionate to the crime, especially in cases where the offence could go either way. In their view, this limits one side from running away with the score on the back of the other team’s mistake. Narrower score lines and more contestable matches make better viewing and are more likely to bring new interest to the sport.

Supporters of the change claim that it will make the game more competitive, dynamic and interesting to watch

An alternative way of looking at this, is that those in favour of the changes are implicitly saying that the red card — as a punishment for behaviour which puts other players at risk — is disproportionate. This view is a naked rejection of player safety and an implication that head injuries are not that bad. To accept this position would be a blatant insult to player wellbeing.

Assuming, dubiously, that all the supposed advantages of a 20-minute red card are as presented by proponents and their perspective on proportionality is valid, we must consider the message the proposed changes send. In the face of lawsuits over sustained brain trauma leading to dementia in former players, World Rugby has started a drive to make tackles safer and to minimise head contact.

Consequently, it sends mixed messages to ease off discipline. To quote the 1980s sitcom Yes Minister: “If I believed in all their policies, I’d have been a fervent retentionist and an ardent abolitionist, a Keynesian and a Friedmanite, a grammar school preserver and destroyer, a nationalisation freak and a privatisation maniac; but above all, I would have been a stark, staring, raving schizophrenic”

In short, World Rugby butting heads with the Southern Hemisphere Unions represents the leadership of the game advancing contradictory polices, by wanting a safer game and a more dramatic one.

A 20-minute red card puts discipline, safety and thus the game as a whole at risk. A player on a losing team who gets red carded must walk into the changing rooms and face the understandable ire of their teammates for their disproportionate role in the loss. That player enforcement of discipline is vital to safety on the pitch. But if red cards become less consequential to the outcomes of the match, the likelihood of teams policing their own diminishes significantly —ultimately jeopardising the discipline that rugby prides itself on.

Furthermore, this move — according to awareness groups — spits in the face of World Rugby’s action on concussions. The most frequent source of red cards at the top level of the game is from head contact through unsafe tackles/rucks, and the laws of the game have been modified in recent years stating players who make head contact must be sent off. This tough stance is undermined by diminishing the sanctions for foul play.

A 20-minute red card puts discipline, safety and thus the game as a whole at risk

To underscore the seriousness of this, consider the impact on the future of the game if World Rugby is not seen to adequately safeguard players. Endless legal trouble, which we are already beginning to see, from brain trauma victims seeking compensation could drain the game’s resources.

Or, perhaps, decreasing numbers of young players put off by the seemingly unmitigated risk could starve the game of talent. It is not dramatic to say that concussions and their consequences could be the death of the game if they are not appropriately managed. The first step in that management is by imposing firm sanctions for unsafe contact.

All in all, the proposed changes to the red card would cause more problems than they remedy. While everyone involved in the game would like to see it grow and become more dynamic, it would be a misstep to have that come at the risk of player safety. The fact remains that the game has the looming concussion issue as its primary problem, and any other change must be in support of controlling that risk. So, despite its novelty and promise, the red card changes are not for the best. Thus, I personally hope they do not make it beyond this trial.

Image: Marc via Flickr

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