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The Breakdown: Rugby's authorities should listen to the wise advice of Wayne Barnes regarding the red mist.
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The Breakdown: Rugby’s authorities should listen to the wise advice of Wayne Barnes regarding the red mist.

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There is ongoing disagreement regarding opinions, but many agree that Wayne Barnes has been the top referee of our era. With his retirement, he appears to be more comfortable expressing his thoughts. It would be beneficial for the sport to listen to him.

He made an appearance on TNT’s round one highlights show for the Champions Cup this month and shared his opinions on the cards that he and his colleagues have been required to discuss for many years.

When questioned about the frequency of showing red cards to players who did not intend to harm others in their actions, the referee chose not to answer with “every time”. However, his diplomatic reply suggested that he believes players do not intentionally aim to injure others, but rather make mistakes.

In other words, the game’s pace and physicality make it impossible for players to always make the right decisions. Therefore, the protocols ensure that players will be sent off. Barnes believes that this issue should be addressed, especially after seeing 112 cards in the Champions Cup last season. As we reflect on the recent World Cup, it is important to consider if we want to continue seeing teams playing with less than 15 players.

Touching words from the person who oversaw, just a few months ago, the inaugural men’s Rugby World Cup final with a red card, watched by millions around the world, following the first ever in the women’s tournament. Sadly, Sam Cane was singled out as the culprit in the men’s game. However, it is also moving to reflect on his identity.

Due to precise timing and results, the bunker review officer determined that his violation would be changed from a yellow card to a red, while Siya Kolisi’s remained a yellow in the same game. It is significant to note that Cane is both the captain and an openside flanker for the All Blacks, while Kolisi holds the same positions for the Springboks. This indicates that they are highly skilled in tackling within the sport.

Many of us have become accustomed to the complaints of armchair critics who believe that players should simply learn to tackle lower. Even the most skilled tacklers in the sport cannot guarantee that they will never accidentally make contact with a player’s head.

Some people argue that the use of red cards started in 2019 during the World Cup when the “high-tackle sanction framework” was introduced. However, this was simply a set of guidelines to assist referees in being more consistent and to help viewers understand the rulings. In 2021, this framework was replaced with the “head-contact process”. It may be suggested that red cards for high tackles were only implemented at this time.

The protocol was officially implemented in the real world on January 3, 2017, almost seven years ago. The wording was much more strict and there was little room for leniency. The first red card was given to Richard Barrington of Saracens that weekend. However, the policy had been informally in place before that. In December 2016, there were a total of nine red cards over two weekends in Europe. It was later revealed that referees had been discreetly instructed to follow the protocols that were about to be enforced. The issue of red cards for accidental incidents rather than intentional crimes was first discussed by Breakdown in April 2015.

The top players globally have had a minimum of seven years to master low tackling. However, there continues to be an influx of red cards. This trend will persist unless this unjust treatment is discontinued, as none of the infractions are deliberate or preventable.

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Lydia Thompson of England leaves the field after receiving a red card during the 2021 Rugby World Cup final match against New Zealand.

There is a significant amount of proof indicating that players are tackling with less force. The trend of glorifying the “big hit”, a chest-high tackle that was once praised by the entire rugby community, has disappeared in recent years. This change is seen as a positive development, as it is no longer viewed as cool. Although it has not affected the number of concussions in the sport, this shift away from celebrating big hits is a step towards prioritizing player safety.

We did not need to send a single player off to achieve that shift. Education and coaching are the biggest inputs, and an actual law change to back it up would also help, lowering the legal height of a tackle from shoulder height, where it has always remained, to something like the armpit or sternum. The avalanche of penalties that would unleash is preferable to even one more red card for an accident.

Cane was deeply distraught when he received word of his red card on that fateful night, much like Tom Curry (an exceptional England openside known for his tackling abilities) had during the tournament’s opening weekend. The night that was supposed to be the highlight of Cane’s life ended in devastation, tarnishing the reputation of the sport’s premier event. Lydia Thompson has shared her emotional experience of receiving a red card in the women’s final, which almost caused her to lose her composure.

The individuals being affected by the sport’s actions are human beings. The elite level of rugby is inherently dangerous and this will not change. Attempting to punish players after severe injuries occur is not a viable solution. Referees are not watching from a comfortable position; they are in the midst of the fast-paced action of the sport. They can distinguish that the players do not intend to cause harm and do not enjoy having to eject them from the game. Let May Barnes’s words have an impact where it truly counts.

Source: theguardian.com