Tuesday 19 September 2017

Glennon: Black-card option would make hard calls a lot easier

The current yellow/red card punishment system needs a rethink

The introduction of black cards in gaelic football has been largely successful
The introduction of black cards in gaelic football has been largely successful

Jim Glennon

The implications of some relatively routine refereeing decisions have been in the spotlight recently, particularly involving Ulster.

Firstly, they endured the sending-off of Jared Payne in the early minutes of their home Heineken Cup quarter-final after a collision which resulted in a spectacularly nasty landing for an airborne opponent. I commented at the time that the decision was harsh and that Payne wouldn't have known, until it was too late, that he was about to make contact.

Then, in exacerbation of their perceived misfortune, they were on the wrong end of a couple of contentious decisions last Friday against Leinster on the occasion of the official opening of the new Ravenhill. This time the referee's dismissal, again early on, of Tom Court, for what has become known as a 'tip tackle' was the correct call as per the laws of the game as currently framed.

Two further incidents soon followed where Leinster players were under scrutiny. First, Rob Kearney was yellow-carded for a high tackle in unsuccessfully attempting to prevent Paddy Jackson scoring in the corner and then, two minutes later, Rhys Ruddock met the same fate after something of a clumsy tangle with Zane Kirchner which resulted in contact with an airborne, and unlucky, Jackson. While the impact wasn't as spectacular as that in the Payne incident a few weeks previously, the fact that this offence only resulted in a yellow card nonetheless raised the hackles of Ulster supporters.

The explanation offered by the young English referee Luke Pearce for showing Ruddock yellow, and not red, was that Jackson fell on his side, and not on his neck (as had been the case in the Payne incident).

He was clear in his assertion that a dismissal would have been his decision had Jackson landed on his neck. I've no wish to labour the point but it's my firm belief that, in a contact sport such as rugby, players should only be judged or penalised on their own actions and the legality, or otherwise, of those actions. The consequences, regardless of how grave they may be, should not enter into the decision-making process.

A number of factors must be considered here in terms of red-card offences and their impact on the outcome of a particular game. Rugby union has a reasonable history of foresight and openness of mind in embracing and introducing processes or laws geared towards the improvement of the sport for players and spectators alike – the Television Match Official, the yellow card/sin-bin, and the evolution in recent years of the experimental law variations, have all been positive contributions to the game's development.

In light of recent events, however, it may now be timely to re-evaluate the current system where an escalation from standard penalty, to yellow card, to red card is considered the optimum way to manage our contests. To continue with the Ulster example, is it equitable for the wider franchise that borderline incidents in the opening minutes of two of their biggest matches essentially destroyed their chances in both? The squad, admittedly, coped heroically in both instances but the demeaning of the spectacle for paying customers, and the impact on teammates remaining in the trenches, was immense, and unfairly so.

In both instances, and notwithstanding the paucity of evidence of malicious intent on the part of the banished player, the team, and the wider franchise, paid the ultimate price. Yes, it is arguable that players who control themselves in the heat of battle deserve to be rewarded, still I can't help but feel that in many instances the loss of a player is an excessively harsh punishment.

To cite an example from somewhere other than Ravenhill, think back to the semi-final of the 2011 World Cup between France and Wales when Sam Warburton's dismissal at an early stage for a tip tackle effectively ended Wales' chances; again, by the letter, it was

the right call, but was the punishment, as endured by Warburton's wider group, fitting of the crime? I'd suggest not.

The GAA regularly ship unfair criticism for a perceived reluctance to modernise their games but their recent introduction of the black-card system is worthy of examination. The circumstances would, admittedly, be different in that its introduction was in response to a pattern of cynical fouling in Gaelic football, but the underlying principle could well have applications in rugby too.

In the cases of Payne, Court and Warburton, would a more equitable outcome not have ensued if a substitute for the dismissed player was allowed, either immediately or after a specified period? Would such an outcome not represent an undoubted improvement on those recent incidents where the result, to all intents and purposes, was decided before the game had really begun?

Dangerous play must always be discouraged and its perpetrators dealt with appropriately. The professional game has now, however, evolved to a stage where the implications, career-wise and commercially, of such events warrant at least a re-evaluation of the current system.

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