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.
? "We have a responsibility to tackle low."
"He's 6 foot 7!"
? "We have to protect the players. It's a red card."
"Rugby's changed! Rugby's changed!"
Will Spencer was shown a red card for a high tackle, but not everybody agrees…
We haven't heard the last of this one ? pic.twitter.com/ynedwRAflU
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) September 16, 2018
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.’
How is that a red card?? Have to feel for Will Spencer there. I understand protecting players but that’s ridiculous.
— Matt Garvey (@MattGarvey5) September 16, 2018
Even as a wasps fan you must think that’s pathetic, I’ve seen it all now. Ruined a good game
— Gengey (@EllisGenge) September 16, 2018
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.
Where do you stand on the Will Spencer red card? #GallagerPrem
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) 16 September 2018
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