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Kiwi scribe unpacks red-card shortcomings

OPINION: Rugbypass writer Ben Smith delves into the functionality of red cards regarding high tackles and player safety.


Are red cards for high tackles making the game any safer? It is a genuine question the game must answer in due time if it wants to really improve player safety.

The reactive measure to disincentivise contact to the head through punishment is supposed to change player behaviour over time so that there are fewer and fewer high tackles made.

We can all agree that this is the desired end goal given the rapidly growing understanding of CTE and head knocks. The stories of those now suffering after years of playing are harrowing and we all want to see less of them, ideally none in a perfect world.

But, what if over the next five years say, we don’t see a reduction in high tackles? That this supposed solution that we have, red cards for high shots, does nothing to quell the number of high contacts and the game continually sees players sent off for such indiscretions.

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What then? Will the righteous crusade end in defeat or will it continue in this vein until there are simply no red cards left?

After a couple of years of tackle height frameworks and new rules, it is unclear whether these measures have the desired effect of stamping out head-high tackles. If there is data to show it, World Rugby or other governing bodies should release it.

The rugby public should be able to see the progress we are making if there is any. That kind of transparency is critical at this point in time with the game in the state that it is in.

Otherwise, there must be other options on the table to improve player welfare and maintain the contest on the field instead or in addition to issuing red cards, which were previously reserved for intentional, malicious acts of foul play such as punching, eye-gouging, stamping and the spear tackle.


The inherent problem with the tackle area is that it is a high-speed collision event that, at times, becomes uncontrollable. A slight angle change by this player or the entry of another tackler into the collision zone adds complexity that results in a player error.

No one has the telepathic capability to predict what someone else will do at light speed, let alone then react to change course and prevent the worst from happening.

In some cases, the offender might be reckless, careless or negligent, but regardless, it is still a miscalculation and in most cases an unintentional error of execution.

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The game has decided to punish this player’s error by virtue of red cards as a means to solve the problem. This isn’t disputing the concussion issue, only to ask if this solution that is in place is actually working.

Surely the end goal is to actually reduce concussions, not just virtue signal that we stand against them by continuing to issue red cards in a public condemnation of the act after the fact.

The former is what we are after, the latter is not. The latter is not progress, it is simply moral grandstanding around the issue while letting it continue. Any solution, whatever it is, must be measured and be proven to be having a quantifiable impact.

We can issue 1,000 red cards to make it feel like we are doing something, but it does not reverse the impact of contact to the head in those thousand instances.

It is only supposed to disincentivise the next one, and that disincentive does not seem to be working as intended.

This is the prohibition argument all over again, whether it is illicit substances or high tackles. Does the threat of punishment of an act actually stop it from happening again and again?

There are other factors at play that mean you can’t help but feel this is a window dressing exercise that does not go to the extent it needs to if player welfare is genuinely at the heart of the cause.

How often does the game see a player carded for a high tackle, yet fail to see the tackled player taken off for a mandatory head injury assessment?

Surely if player welfare is paramount, any player that is tackled high enough to warrant punishment should receive a mandatory HIA.

This is the kind of hypocrisy that casts doubt over the intention of the current crackdown on high tackles.

We happily card the offender and don’t bother to assess the victim unless they are completely legless, like Ireland lock James Ryan was at Twickenham earlier in the year.

He was forced from the field because he couldn’t stand on two feet. Others have simply got up and played on.

We know that the head is sacrosanct and must be protected as much as possible if the game is to reduce the number of concussions suffered by playing.

Why is it then legal for a ball carrier to duck into tackles, leading with the crown of the head into opposing players? We see this habit occur frequently by ball carriers ducking into contact, head-first.

We’ve gone to lengths to protect the ball carrier from defenders, but if the ball carrier does this, it is okay?

Perhaps the top of the head is a ‘better’ place to be hit than the face and chin area, and this is why players do it as a means of bracing for a high impact contact, but it doesn’t make it any easier for the tackler.

Aside from complicating the safe tackle zone for the defence, what happens if the ball carrier leads with the head and makes high contact with the defender?

If the game is serious about protecting the head in the tackle zone, the next step is to force the ball carrier to take some responsibility and place some onus on them to respect the head, even if it is their own.

Eventually, every area of the game needs to be understood for the role in concussion. It can’t just be high tackles. It must be all on-field collision events – scrums, breakdowns, tackles of all kinds, aerial collisions.

Southern Hemisphere administrators have pushed for a 20-minute red card in order to reduce the impact on the contest, allowing a side to return to 15 players by substituting the offending player after the 20-minute period.

Herein lies the problem with taking a punishment reserved for extreme foul play and mixing it with one for an act of accidental error.

Highlanders first five Sam Gilbert was red-carded for a spear tackle on Waratahs flanker Michael Hooper in the latest round of Super Rugby Pacific. He made a mistake, as players do, but it was incredibly dangerous.

It was the kind of tip tackle that would’ve immediately warranted a red card punishment in any era, where the Highlanders would have been down to 14 men for the entire contest.

The 20-minute red card was the only available option, so the Highlanders returned to a full complement after 20 minutes. By meddling with the original intention of the red card, unintended consequences will follow.

This is perhaps the unsolvable issue for rugby. To keep things in context to the wider sporting world, it is great that there is a desire to make the change.

The UFC and professional boxing don’t seem to have a plan, but business goes on. On the surface, there is no solution for combat sport but to stop altogether. For collision sports, the reduction has to be key.

At some point, the realisation might be made that there will never be the eradication of all concussion events in rugby, but reductions can be achieved. Welfare can be improved, as it has over time.

But, is the game truly committed to finding every possible way to understand and limit them, or is it just grandstanding around it with half-baked solutions based on postering without measuring if its current measures are working? If we are seeing results, share them.

Because if we aren’t actually making progress, the game won’t be any safer and these issues won’t be solved or reduced.

It will just be a never-ending card crackdown to show how much we all stand against concussions.

By Ben Smith, Rugbypass

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