Is it time to introduce ‘orange’ cards?

Will Spencer

Sunday treated us to the game of the season so far – midlands rivals Wasps and Leicester Tigers duked it out in an eight-try thriller, with the lead changing hands several times before Wasps eventually emerged 41-35 victors.

However, the game has received more attention in the aftermath for its key turning point than the quality of rugby – the 40th minute red card for Will Spencer, following a shoulder to the head of Wasps hooker Tommy Taylor.

It has reignited the debate over what constitutes a reckless and dangerous tackle, with one camp of the view that action is necessary to protect players amid spiralling injury rates and concussion fears, while the other side believes it proves the game is getting soft.

The Rugby Blog’s own Jacob Bassford labelled it ‘a decision that caused outcry amongst all rugby fans even amongst those wearing gold-tinted spectacles’ in his review of the weekend, while Tigers’ coach Geordan Murphy remarked ‘I think the game’s gone a little bit too PC … It’s rugby. Tommy Taylor was fine, Dai Young seemed OK with it, there was no HIA [head injury assessment], there was no real danger to the player. It’s killed the game really.’

‘If that’s a headshot Tommy Taylor probably stays down and has an HIA. He doesn’t so it wasn’t a head shot, was it? From our point of view, it wasn’t a red card.’

The disciplinary panel heard the case last night, and rejected the claim that no contact was made with the head, and punished Spencer further with a four week suspension.

In my opinion, even as a Tigers fan, it was the right call – the referee directive is clear on this issue and a shoulder directly to the head, without any mitigating circumstances (e.g Taylor didn’t dip or slip at the last minute) unfortunately means a red card – even if you are a behemoth lock like Will Spencer.

This enforcement has been brought in for good reason, to safeguard players and their health, and players need to adapt. In this case, Taylor was fine, but there have been plenty of serious head injuries recently – you only have to look back to the summer and French winger Remy Grosso on the receiving end of a double hit to the head from All Blacks Sam Cane and Ofa Tu’ungafasi, which left him with a double fracture to his skull. That hit went unpunished.

However, while Murphy’s point about killing the game is arguable in this instance – Tigers actually seemed galvanised following the incident and attacked with a new vigour, as can often the case following controversial cards – the fact is it is exceptionally difficult to play an extended period of a game (in this case, 40 minutes) with fewer men on the field.

There are many recent examples where an early red card for a similar incident has dramatically affected the outcome of the match – Sonny Bill Williams check on Anthony Watson in the second Lions test is perhaps the most high-profile example in recent time, while there are also numerous examples of red cards for slightly mistimed challenges in the air (remember Elliot Daly’s against Argentina a couple of years back).

And it is further complicated by recent examples such as new Bristol Bear/111-cap Australian and all-time great George Smith, who has avoided any follow-on punishment after his red card for a tackle on Saracens Jackson Wray the other weekend, after presenting a detailed breakdown of the tackle rule to the disciplinary panel, explaining the various factors that contributed to the incident.

Panel chair Gareth Graham said in the post-hearing statement: ‘The player explained his actions in detail and assisted the panel by demonstrating how the tackle had been carried out.’ (There is a great interview with Smith on ESPN which takes you through the story if you want to read it).

This story shows just how complex the adjudication of these tackles can be, and it concerns me that we may see a spike in red cards which either spoil the spectacle of the game, or mar the result in retrospect if they are later judged excessively harsh.

But there could be another option – orange cards.

An idea I first heard discussed on Chris Jones’ and Ugo Monye’s BBC Rugby Union Weekly podcast last season, an orange card would send the player to the bin for 10 minutes, followed by a forced substitution, with a player from the bench taking the orange-carded player’s place.

This means there is still a substantial handicap for the team (teams ship, on average, 10 points while a player is in the bin), but would prevent the incident from dictating the outcome of the game as a contest completely. It would still have the desired deterrent effect on the player, as for them it is ‘game over’ – and potentially followed by a ban if judged appropriate by the disciplinary committee. There have been other iterations of the orange card mooted before (e.g. 20-minute sin bin), but this is the version I think that would work best.

Red cards would still exist, but would be reserved for deliberate and unacceptable acts of foul play – punches, boot to the head, gouging, biting, driving spear tackles, abusing the referee etc.

If the game is serious about clamping down on play that is dangerous to the health of players, and because of the fact that rugby at the end of the day is an aggressive contact sport, I think we will start to see more and more red-card incidents spoiling games – even if players begin to adapt, there are too many accidental incidents which can now lead to red card offences. I think the orange card is a way of acknowledging that concern but at least partly ensuring the game doesn’t become a lesser spectacle.

What do you think?

By Henry Ker

38 thoughts on “Is it time to introduce ‘orange’ cards?

  1. Not sure if I am in the minority on this but my feeling was that it was a straight red. He nearly took his head off. If that isn’t what we are trying to prevent, I don’t know what is. It seems like the RFU disciplinary panel agreed.
    I’m not quite sure what the thought is about preserving the game, as 30 years ago when I played, the whole idea of tackling was to take someone low to bring them down, not try to knock them back into next week. That has come about more recently from the professional (and now amateur too) gym culture. If more people tackle low, there will be more chance at offloads and more exciting rugby and les injuries. Is that bad?
    Donning hard hat and running for bunker……

      1. I actually agree, and I also think that the statement regarding the fact that Tommy Taylor was fine and that there was no HIA is rubbish. What if it had been James Gaskell on George Ford and the end result was Ford being carried off on a stretcher, just because Taylor has a good chin, doesn’t make it alright.

        I’m also in the same camp regarding the game, like you Staggy having played some years ago. I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that Murphy was also excusing it by saying that as Taylor had bent his knees, if he’d been standing upright it would have been at nipple height and a perfect tackle. This has changed somewhat, when i was being taught, it was all about targeting the waist down!

    1. Interesting point Staggy. They are trialing lowering the tackle to below the arm-pit in the knockout cup at Championship level I believe, and when I interviewed Simon Halliday of European rugby last year he suggested even having player jerseys with a physical line printed across them to make it blindingly clear to players (and easier for refs to judge) what is high and what’s not.

      Another added complication is that apparently most instances of concussion are actually in the tackler, not the player tackled, as they get their head in slightly the wrong place and take an elbow or knee to the noggin. Lowering the tackle wouldn’t help that…

      1. Valid point Henry. Charlie Sharples got knocked out getting his head in front of the knee not behind it. I’m not a doctor, but would this be the occasional concussion caused by bad tackling technique versus continual rattling of the brain caused by higher tackles many of which result in the head being whiplashed even when legal. I don’t know the answer though.

      2. Henry, you are correct to note that the tackler is more at risk than the ball carrier. However, whilst it would appear counter-intuitive, it is wrong to suggest that lowering the tackle will not help.

        The evidence shows that risk of a head injury is highest when the tackler is upright, and that’s true regardless of the ball carrier’s body position.

        the full World Rugby study can be found here;

          1. Well for most of us who have ever played the game, it certainly natural and right that upright tackles are safer, hence the findings of this study being so interesting.

            1. I’m sure I remember reading that the rate of concussion had increased significantly since refs started cracking down on high or marginally high tackles – mostly because people’s technique was crap and as pointed out above, the tackler was knocking himself out. Leigh Halfpenny being a prime example of this.

  2. Perhaps it might be time to open this up to a wider debate as to whether making the game professional as opposed to semi pro has been a good or bad thing?

    1. No going back on that Acee, that stable door has been left wide open and I can’t see it ever being shut. And as I said, the size of players at club and even school level now has grown significantly in the last 20 years. I watch quite a few games of 1st XV rugby at my sons school and some of the boys are huge.

  3. The numbers show that whilst most head injuries do occur to the tackler, higher tackles are also more dangerous for the tackler.

    The evidence shows that lower tackles are safer for the tackler too.

    Not my evidence. The WR report can be found here;

      1. Just seen Robert Kitson proposed a ‘black’ card (not sure where that colour choice came from) in the Guardian yesterday, which would be just a immediate forced substitution. Another variant on the same idea, but not sure it would have enough of a deterrent effect, however.

        1. Yeah I saw the same article. I understand the law is outcome based and not intent based, maybe that’s something that needs to be addressed,

  4. I’m in two minds about the Orange card. I can see the merit in distinguishing between the deliberate and ‘accidental’ offences, and the deterrent for players of being substituted should be fairly great when there is so much competition for places.

    However, it would be less of a deterrent than the straight red, and concussion needs to be taken extremely seriously, as it’s an issue that could kill the sport – the greater the deterrent from contact with the head the better. I have a 6 year-old boy, it’s fair to say I’m quite into Rugby, but do I want him to play professional Rugby? Probably not.

    Also, Rugby really doesn’t need MORE rules!

    1. I really do agree with you on that second point Hutch – I think concussion and injury fears are the biggest threat to the game out there. We have already heard plenty of (understandable if regrettable) stories of parents not wanting their kids to take up the sport at all and doctors warning against it and suggesting it should be touch rugby up until a fairly late age. I don’t get the attitude form players saying the game is going soft – I think it is fair to say we still see plenty of brilliant, physical, powerful rugby. Are shoulder-hits to the head a mark of good rugby and the reason I watch matches? Nope.

      While I think orange cards could have a place in the game, I do expect players to (hopefully) adapt to the new rules – we may see a glut of red cards in the short term but it will abate over time.

  5. It seems to me that there is a lot of discussion around changing the current laws, or applications of the laws, as if it doesn’t work well at the moment.

    If they are applied correctly (as per Sundays game) and consistently (which sadly does not happen), then I don’t see that anything needs to change.

    Orange Cards/Black cards, 20 minute sin-bins, forced replacements, all seem like making changes for the sake of the “rugbys gone soft”/”in my day”/”may as well play touch” brigade who, frankly, cannot be trusted with the well-being of the game.

    Yes, I know this includes – clearlly – a lot of current professional players, and recent players with high profile roles, but they do not see the game through an objective lens when it comes to safeguarding the head. What they see are incidents that remind them of situations they have been in when they played, and they know that there was no intent then, they know that they did not expect (or receive) a Red Card then, and they believe that this was right.

    It was right then, but we now know better, and it is wrong now.

    1. Hi Blub, take your points but to counter one aspect – I am not in the ‘rugby’s gone soft’ brigade, and think Spencer’s card was correct, but still feel there may be a place for orange cards.

      This due to two things: one is the consistency factor that you mention – particularly if we start seeing incidents such as George Smith’s card, which was later found incorrect. The second is if the rules continue to be extended, for example to further enforce reckless charges into a ruck where a player jacketing has his head smashed (something which is comparatively ignored at the moment) – and i don’t think this would be a bad thing – than we may see even more red cards, perhaps to the detriment of the quality of the game. I was proposing the orange card as something that could reconcile with the dual aims of protecting players and the game itself.

      1. Yes I take your points Henry. I suppose my feeling really is that an Orange Card just feels a little ‘watered-down’.

        I guess what we are really looking for is a change of mindset from the players, and just feel that a “big-stick” (Red card) is needed rather than a “medium stick” (Orange).

        After all, although it took around a year, we now rarely see the dangerous challenges in the air that seemed almost commonplace before the Red Cards came out in abundance.

        As for the flying charges into breakdown – don’t get me started 😉

    2. I think what you are saying makes a lot of sense.

      However, I don’t think that it is either wrong or not looking after the well-being of the game to point out that a red card is a stringent punishment that not only affects the player but also substantially affects the game itself. And to give one as the result of what may be an entirely accidental high tackle due to a player falling or a big difference in height is an overly severe punishment that I think will be very much to the detriment of games. Red cards should be reserved for deliberate and unacceptable acts of foul play – not that these can’t include high tackles of course, SBW on Watson being a prime example (as I also think Tu’ungafasi on Grosso was for all that it went unpunished)

      The idea of an intermediate punishment as described above, that will still be a significant deterrent and yet will not mar games for what might be an entirely accidental collision, is I think a good one and one that would likely have the desired effect.

      Of course, another way of stopping chest-high man and ball tackles would be to ban the off load and state that a player cannot pass whilst being tackled. But I don’t think any of us want this do we?

      1. Per my reply to Henry above, I just feel the stricter the punishment, the quicker it will lead to the desired affect. But I do take your points, and understand that the Orange Card idea has merit.

        Grosso – forgot all about that. That was quite shameful on behalf of the authorities. Thats another aspect to this whole debate right?

  6. Certainly the ban was not reduced at all, as he pleaded ‘Not guilty’ which seems rather odd in the circumstances.

    I see that Geordan Murphy has spoken very well about his comments post match. His initial words were very poor BUT huge credit to him for coming out and correcting himself.

  7. Perhaps there’s no bias intended in this article by giving 3 examples of red carded, or by implication, ought to have been redded, NZ International players, but as the site is primarily of, for & by the English & in the interests of some balance & objectivity, here are 5 English International players whom have also been sent off, @ least according to The Telegraph.
    1 Mike Burton 1975 late tackle in ‘Battle of Brisbane v Aus’, 2 Dany Grewcock 1998 kicking Anton Oliver v NZ, Dunedin, 3 Simon Shaw 2004 v NZ 2nd test, Auckland kneeing Keith Robinson, 4 Lewis Moody 2005 v Samoa, Twick punching Leicester team mate Alesana Tuilagi & 5 Elliott Daly 2016 tackling Arg No. 8 Leonardo Senatore in the air, Twick. Their inclusion may have been a tad more appropriate.. & I suppose the unfortunate Aussie, Geo Smith, does @ least play here.

    1. Hi Don, Definitely no bias intended – just citing some of the most recent examples (i.e. within the last couple of years) which are relevant to discussion. Purely coincidence they happen to include a few New Zealand players. And I did mention your number 5 (Elliot Daly). Also it is not about the sending off, but rather the incident – kicking, punching or kneeing a player has no bearing on a discussion about enforcement of the tackle height leading to a rise in red cards the proposal for introducing ‘orange’ cards. They clearly would all still be red card offences.

      1. Ok, have to let you off then Henry. You did indeed mention Daly, for ‘tackling’ in the air. Initially, for me it appeared that, internationally, NZ were being exposed for high tackles by a ratio of 3 names to 1 in yr post. Anyway, I accept yr explanation. Regards. Thanks for yr response.

    2. Christ Don. You’re written some really good comments recently. Don’t go and ruin it all with this chip on the shoulder rubbish.

      Those incidences have clearly been referenced because they are fresh in people’s minds and perfectly illustrate the discussion.

      Referring to tackles over 40 years ago in no way adds to or aids the conversation. Nor does referring to punching or kneeing when we are clearly discussing whether the punishment of accidental high tackles has gone too far. And of course the Daly incident has in fact been mentioned.

      Stopping trying to find bias where there is none

      1. Pablito, think you released yr blistering broadside prior to my acceptance of Henry Ker’s take on my response to his article. Trying to decide which colour card to give you; yellow, black, orange, or red? You may also have trouble getting into heaven in due course. God can’t be that happy with the opening of yr fusillade can he?

  8. ‘Do I not like the colour orange’. So espoused the late Graham Taylor all those yrs ago, albeit about a game with an incorrectly shaped ball. I have ambivalent views on the orange card. Apparently it’s designed to punish players whom transgress without intent, as opposed to those whom do so with intent. Therein lies a dilemma. How to decide. Some cases may be easier to judge than others. Therefore, it may invite more fudge, rather than reduce it. As alluded to here, the game needs less (& clear) rules not more. If the aim of cards is to protect players, then whether we like or agree with them or not, surely they must be adhered to. This is down refs.. & or the TMO’s. Instead of jollying between ‘coaching’ & reffing, they must adhere to & not ‘interpret’ rules. Personally I’d give TMO’s authority to correct or override refs in applying rules. They see more. Would this waste more time than accepted collapsed scrums? Unlikely. Also, onus must be on coaches to enforce correct player techniques, timing & knowledge of tackling rules. Whether tackling low, high, frontally or otherwise, is more or less likely to reduce potential injuries & subsequently cads, I’m now less certain. However, perhaps if the ruck & tackle law were changed back to where forwards were forwards & committed to the breakdown instead of clogging the back line, maybe ‘skinnier’ players would suffer less injuries @ the hands of 3 stone heavier dreadnaughts running over or ‘through’ them. Anyway, although ‘orange’ may have some merit, in the end, I opt for less is more regarding cards. This is bearing in mind that played protection is of paramount importance. Haven’t the energy, willpower or inclination to discuss ‘black’ I’m afraid.


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