Talking Point: RWC final card controversy may have positive spin-off

rugby31 October 2023 07:03| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich
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Wayne Barnes © Gallo Images

The issue of cards, the blight on the modern game, didn’t make its presence felt at Rugby World Cup 2023 as much as many feared it might, but when it did it came at the most inopportune time. Or maybe let me rethink that - the timing of the controversy that impacted on and then followed the Paris final was actually perfect.

That might seem a bizarre thing to say and perhaps even a bit disrespectful to the referee Wayne Barnes, who turned in a stellar performance with the whistle and yet was allegedly subjected to death threats afterwards, and All Blacks captain Sam Cane.

Cane must be feeling like England soccer star David Beckham felt after his sending off against Argentina in the 1998 Fifa World Cup. Hopefully he won’t be vilified to the same extent by his countrymen that Beckham was.

Not that he would be, for this is really the point of this column - there is so much grey area and uncertainty and such a technical morass enveloping the whole issue of cards given around the tackle law interpretations that it is almost impossible to play the blame game. At least you can’t blame the player in the same way that you could back in the day when red cards were reserved for properly heinous indiscretions that brought the sport into disrepute.

Many of the modern red incidents are just accidents that are at worst the result of slight sloppiness with a complete absence of malicious intent, and many are also just unavoidable in a contact sport. When Cane was carded my WhatsApp lit up with messages from people saying how ridiculous it was. And every single one of those messages was from a South African.

Not that the fact Springbok fans were as incensed with that sending off as the All Blacks were should be unexpected either. For the minute a red card is awarded it dictates the post-match narrative and brings in expectation. If the Boks had lost the game they would have been slated for losing to 14 men and they would have been severely embarrassed.


Of course, going down to 14 men doesn’t automatically condemn a team to defeat in the way that so many overseas Bok detractors would like to think it does. England’s relatively successful campaign, taking pre-tournament expectation as a yardstick, may well have been sourced in the red card Tom Curry received early in their first game against Argentina.

These days every team prepares beforehand for what they will do when they lose a man. England obviously do it well because during the warmup phase they came back to win a game against Wales where the turning point was the sending off of Owen Farrell, which coincided with a yellow card to another player.

England effectively won that game, and played much better, when they were down to 13 men, and the Curry sending off in Marseille appeared to galvanise them against Argentina too. At the very least, it forced them to focus on the limited game plan that they adopted to get them to play-offs and into the semifinal.

There are many instances when a red card does the opposite of what might be expected. Sharks supporters might remember the day in 2014, when Jake White was the coach, that their team scored an historic Super Rugby win over the Crusaders in Christchurch, The Sharks were losing that game before Jean Deysel got sent off. White also presided over an historic Bulls win over the Stormers/Western Province at Newlands where his team was down to 14 in the second half and they came from behind on the scoreboard.

There was another less significant game back in the Gert Smal era at the Stormers that sticks in my memory - the Reds were losing to the Cape franchise but then their hooker Tai McIsaac was sent off and the whole momentum shifted. The Reds ended up winning comfortably.

It isn’t only in rugby that kind of thing happens. It wasn’t long ago that Liverpool came back when a man down to beat Newcastle away and they came within a few seconds of taking a point from Spurs away when down to nine men. A mate who played international soccer tells me that there were many times in his career when he ended up wondering after an opposing player had been sent off whether they’d actually added a man. That is what it felt like to him.


The Boks were bossing the final before Cane was carded. They didn’t after the All Blacks had had a chance at halftime to regroup and re-align in the knowledge they were a man down. They were also energised by the Siya Kolisi yellow card which, like the Cane one, was correct according to the letter of the law but still ridiculous.

There’s a weird psychology that comes with red cards and teams going down a man that impacts on both teams, and I am in agreement with those who say that had Cane not been sent off, the Boks might have won more comfortably.

Note the word ‘might’, because we don’t know, just like we also don’t know that if the All Blacks were at full muster the whole way they would have won. And that is the point. The cards detract from the enjoyment of both sides. They give the losers an excuse, and they have to take a slight gloss off the jubilation of those who support the winners. They detract from rugby as a sport that is supposed to be a contest between two teams made up of 15 players.

We know that the morass of laws around the tackle and fielding the ball in the air that make decisions so contentious have been introduced around the need to make the sport safer, but there is apparently a debate around whether that is happening. I've read that there are neuroscientists who are now saying that it is not so much the big single head blow that leads to brain damage but an accumulation of “sub concussive impacts”.

Which makes sense. It would be unusual for a boxer to become brain damaged, or punch drunk as some would put it, because of one big right hook taken to the jaw. They get that way because of the many less impactful blows they are prepared to take to the head during the course of their careers.

But regardless of whether it is succeeding in making the sport safer, Saturday’s card fiasco might have come at the right time in the sense that it should wake up World Rugby and make them realise that the sport cannot carry on as it is. There was a red card in the Women’s RWC final last year, with the team that went down a player also losing, so it is effectively two showpiece global finals in a row that have been shrouded in controversy.

That’s surely not good for the sport and while World Rugby might be able to bury heads in the sand when it happens in other games during the regular season, the harm all of this is doing to the sport they govern when it happens at their showpiece event must now be hitting them square in the face.


There are those that say there are no ways around it, but that is baloney. The 20-minutes for a red card idea mooted by the southern hemisphere nations has been on the table for a long time without being accepted. A booking system like soccer is also better than the current system, but I would lean towards something suggested many years ago by former top referee Freek Burger.

Freek argued that red carded players, and yellow for that matter, should be sent from the field but should be replaced from the bench so that the integrity of 15 against 15 is preserved.

Coaches would still be stressed by having first choice players come off and having to activate their bench earlier than they wanted to, but the people who invest their time and emotional energy, not to mention in many instances money, to watch the games won’t feel like the experience has been ruined.

And there’d be less chance of the post-match narrative being dominated by the “We wuz robbed” faction, something that happened not just after the final, but also after the Bok quarterfinal and semifinal wins, where there was a disturbing focus by supporters of the disgruntled losers on cards they felt should have been awarded but weren’t.

When we go down that road, and search like a TMO too often appears to do for misdemeanours that might lead to a sending off, it all becomes very messy.

Every time I hear a coach say something like “we should have won that game because the opposition should have been a man down after five minutes” it irritates me. That’s not what rugby is supposed to be about, and getting the opposition to go down a man shouldn’t be an acceptable tactic. Increasingly though it is.