Time to rethink Rugby’s Ultimate Sanction?
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - JUNE 16: Benjamin Fall of France receives a red card from Referee Angus Gardner during the International Test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and France at Westpac Stadium on June 16, 2018 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

With the Northern hemisphere on hiatus for the summer, and the Southern competition nearing to the end of the 2018 Super Rugby season, some recent page one story lines are drying up. However, there is one that isn’t going away – the spate of red card’s issued in recent weeks. Rugby’s ultimate sanction, and it’s prevalence in the June Test Internationals.

The game of rugby’s ultimate sanction – the ordering off of a player – was something in place for outright thuggery or brutal assault. However, in more recent times that has become blurred and players who have attempted legitimate acts within the game of Rugby have fallen foul of officials.

What rugby needs to do is rethink ‘crime and punishment’ in the modern game.

‘Blurred lines’ for sanction

As example one, LWOR takes for instance the recent case of Benjamin Fall. The French fullback, who only had eyes for the ball when he collided with Beauden Barrett, in an incident that saw the All Black upturned and landing dangerously head-first on the Westpac Stadium turf.

Under World Rugby’s current guidelines, it was clear to most watching that he would be ordered off. And from the very moment referee Angus Gardiner brandished the red card, the howls that “it ruined the game” sounded from all corners.

Few would consider that Fall’s actions were intentionally dangerous, yet he faced the same sanction as if he had actually picked Barrett up and thrown him into the ground. It’s this inequality of action and, that outcome that needs addressing.

Change ‘outcome over action’ process

World Rugby is normally a leader when it comes to incorporating changing needs into its game. For instance, its process around potential head injuries is light years ahead of its rugby league cousin, and here is a chance for it to be again.

What rugby needs is a sanction that allows an offending player to be removed from the match, but not take away from the match itself.

Specifically, where the player was undertaking a legitimate rugby act where the consequence was disproportionate to their actions. In effect reversing the current ‘outcome over action’ driven process. Fortunately there are aspects from other sports that rugby could learn, and take, from.

Gaelic Football – a sport I also both play and referee – is one. A few years ago it had a problem with certain types of fouling that were detracting from the game. The response for these was to introduce the ‘Black Card’ as a sanction between the Yellow (a warning like that of Association Football) and Red (ordering off), specifically for those offences.

General action during the All-Ireland GAA Final between Galway and Kerry held at Croke Park,Dublin in the Republic of Ireland on the 24th of September 2000.(Photo by Michael Cooper/Getty Images)

With the Black Card the player is ordered from the field, but can be replaced. While not universally popular – it was introduced in preference to a rugby-style ‘sin-bin’ – and was initially misapplied in a number of instances it has had the desired effect.

Ice Hockey has a similar rule with its game misconduct penalty and resulting 5-minute power play. The offender is removed from the game and the opposition has a period with a tangible advantage before normality resumes.

What rugby should adopt; or at least trial in its laboratory at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University, is a sanction where the player is removed from play and their team suffers a 10-minute player reduction as for a Yellow Card, at the end of which they could be replaced.

Under my proposal, Fall would have been able to be replaced – as would CJ Stander when he was sent off against South Africa a few seasons back. Whereas, All Black Sonny Bill Williams’ shoulder to the head of British and Irish Lions winger Anthony Watson last year would not be.

The difference is the players action and intent, rather than simply the outcome.

Accepting decisions that affect matches

Taking such approach would come with trade-offs. The current outcome-focused process is somewhat clear, whereas an action-driven one would put more on the referee’s decision and would lead to more variables being considered.

That in turn will introduce more ‘grey’ into the decisions. So, is it something rugby can live with? As a referee who interacts with players who must be in-tune with the referees call. Accepting decisions that affect matches.

Then I say, that it can work.


Scott MacLean is an Wellington Regional referee, who regularly contributes to Last Word on Rugby on issues that reflect the laws and governance of the sport.


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