11 Nov 2020

Bidwell: Red cards are the right call

3:30 pm on 11 November 2020

Opinion - Players ruin rugby games, not referees.

All Blacks prop Ofa Tuungafasi leaves the field after being sent off against Australia.

All Blacks prop Ofa Tuungafasi leaves the field after being sent off against Australia. Photo: Photosport

Sure, some referees are greater grandstanders than others and more prone to believing they're as important a participant as the players.

But the plain and simple truth is that referees award penalties and brandish yellow and red cards because players cheat. And not only do players cheat, they're coached to cheat as well.

There will be those who want to tell you Saturday's Bledisloe Cup rugby test between New Zealand and Australia was blighted by refereeing. That referee Nic Berry was wrong to send one player from each side off for dangerous high tackles and that the game has gone soft and neither of the injured parties was seriously hurt.

It's immaterial whether the All Blacks' Ofa Tu'ungafasi and Wallabies' Lachie Swinton are good blokes or bad blokes, or did or did not intend to headhunt Tom Wright and Sam Whitelock, respectively. Nor is it relevant that no-one was knocked out or had their jaw broken.

That last bit's just dumb luck, anyway.

What's important is that World Rugby protects the heads of players and that all tackles which make direct contact with the head of ball-carriers are penalised in this fashion. If that's World Rugby's standard and that's going to be adhered to across the board, then the game will be better for it and players much safer.

Whether some people like it or not, rugby isn't the game they grew up with. And the basic reason for that is that we know more about the brain and how vulnerable it is to trauma.

Some readers will be familiar with rugby league player Boyd Cordner. The captain of the Sydney Roosters, New South Wales and Australia, Corder is one of the braver players in that code.

He has also become increasingly susceptible to concussion symptoms and, alarmingly, those symptoms appear to be caused by blows to the head that would be described as glancing or incidental.

Cordner has withdrawn from the remainder of this month's State of Origin series and discussion is increasing about whether retirement would be the best thing for him.

Again, Cordner has built a lot of his success on toughness. It's what's made him so admired by his peers and an obvious captaincy candidate to coaches. He has built his reputation on gritting his teeth and playing through pain and fatigue and never showing vulnerability.

But brain injuries are different. You don't shake those off and those who govern our contact sports would be negligent if they didn't do everything in their power to protect players from that kind of trauma.

Remember rucking? Remember all the injuries it caused? Remember all those players left with blood streaming from their head, despite that part of the body being "sacrosanct.''

Remember all those replays of people's feet and the argument about what direction they were travelling in? Remember the distinction that people tried to draw between a ruck and a stomp and all the arguments about intent?

We hear the same drivel now. The tackler wasn't targeting the head. The ball-carrier lowered his body height. So and so isn't that type of player.

Every season junior players and coaches in this country are given tutelage in tackling technique.

"Cheek to cheek'' is the catchcry, as children are taught to tackle opponents around the waist and with their face alongside the ball-runner's buttock. Players in these grades who tackle, or even fend, above the "nipple line'' are penalised.

Damian McKenzie is caught in a tackle against the Crusaders.

Rugby players are taught to tackle up to the nipple line to prevent the attacking player from offloading. Photo: Photosport

Ofa Tu'ungafasi and Lachie Swinton didn't make contact with the heads of Tom Wright and Sam Whitelock by accident. Their intended target was above the nipple line and they hit it.

They might not have wanted to hit anyone flush in the face but, by aiming their contact high, they left themselves no margin for error. Their techniques were lazy and dangerous and they gave Berry and his fellow officials pretty simple decisions to make.

Players are coached to push "the line.'' To push everything to the limit, and sometimes beyond, and see how the referee reacts.

Teams study refs to get a feel for where their personal line might be and how they can exploit that, whether that's tackle heights or offside lines, skulduggery in rucks and mauls or even just verbal abuse. How far can they push the line and not get penalised?

Rugby will not survive if the heads of players are not protected. People won't play, they won't watch and the powers that be might also face lawsuits if they're deemed not to have done enough to prevent brain injuries.

Far from being disgusted by Berry banishing Tu'ungafasi and Swinton on Saturday, we should feel encouraged that the game is starting to take player safety seriously.

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