Monday 16 September 2013

Still seeing red: Blame the rules not the ref

I really, really hate 15 on 14 rugby. Three years ago, I wrote a venting post when in the space of five All Black tests we had seen 3 yellow cards and 1 red. On Saturday night in the test match between the All Blacks and South Africa, we saw that quantity in a single game, three for foul play and one for a professional foul. 

The first yellow card to Bismark Du Plessis was clearly wrong; the second to the same player was clearly correct (as were the cards to Nonu and Read) according to the rules. The problem was that the rules state that a second yellow card automatically leads to a red, and so the original error was compounded and South Africa had to play most of the second half one man short, to the detriment of the game. 

Most of the discussion in the main-stream media and social media since has focused on the error by Roman Poite in carding Du Plessis for what was a perfectly legal tackle. This misses the point. Yes, Poite made was in error*, but errors are inevitable. Rugby is played at a furious pace. Split second judgements are required from both players and referees and all of them are going to make mistakes. The rules need to be written with a view that this is going to happen. The two-yellow-equals-a-red rule is simply too draconian to a world where errors of judgement can happen. 

Part of the problem, here, is that there isn't any coherence in the incentives that the rules seek to create. Partly we want to punish individual players for behaving in a reckless way causing unnecessary endangerment to other players. Partly we want to punish teams for illegal actions of individuals that give their team an advantage. For the latter, it is appropriate that the punishment lead to an advantage for the other team in the course of the game being played. For the former, the punishment can occur after the game in the form of suspensions, fines, etc. If the point of a card is to put a team at a disadvantage to mitigate the advantage caused by some illegal act, why does it make a difference if the same player transgresses twice, or two players from the same team transgress once each? And if the point of the two-yellows-equals-a-red rule is to increase the punishment for habitual offenders, why does it make a difference if that player earns a yellow card once in two successive games or two yellows in a single game? 

I come back to the rule I suggested in my 2010 post: If foul play merits sending a player off, let him be replaced so the game continues to be 15 on 15, but take appropriate action at the post-match judiciary (including being open to the possibility that the on-field decision by the referee was a mistake). If the problem is professional fouls, change the incentives so that conceding a penalty does not give the infringing team an advantage in terms of possession and field possession, and instruct referees to be more liberal in awarding penalty tries. But please, no more 15-on-14; it is a blight on the game. 

* As an aside, why has the criticism all been placed on Poite rather than, George Ayoub. Poite made a call based on what he saw; he asked for guidance from Ayoub, the television match official. Ayoub instead of clearly stating that there was no foul play simply said that he couldn't make a determination and that Poite should go with the call as he saw it. Ayoub had the benefit of slow motion, multiple replays and different angles; Poite did not. Why, then, is Poite the one blamed? 


  1. I too had wondered whether there was a 'lost in translation' moment between the Ref and the third umpire. But not sure I would agree with the problem you have with a 14 versus 15 match. Its pretty common in team sports to send off a foul player - serves as an incentive on the team to keep individuals in order. What I find unsatisfactory is that certain players keep getting sent off for foul player over a long time, and they are still allowed to play.

  2. So the rugby equivalent of a game misconduct penalty isn't a 5 minute major with no return for the penalised player but rather "your whole team is a man down for the rest of the game"?

    There is much I do not understand about that game.

  3. @VMC. There are sports where having a man advantage is so common, that it is expected to happen several times a game and is part of the game (e.g. ice hockey). There are others where players get expelled for foul play but are replaced by others to keep the game from becoming a farce (pretty much any other North American sport). And yet others where expelling a player results in an imbalance, but that is an extremely rare event (test match rugby for its first 108 years--1871-1979, where only 5 players were sent off, including 2 in the same game). In days gone by, a team could often function with only 14 men. In the professional era, a red card in a game between top teams pretty much ends the game as a contest. There are alternative ways of creating incentives without ruining the spectacle. I have noted before that American Football allows sent off players to be replaced, and it is one of the cleanest contact sports I know in terms of illegal foul play.

    I agree with you about players who repeatedly foul over a long period of time. Perhaps if it was understood that such actions would always be dealt with after the game rather than by ruining the game in progress, less post-game leniency would be shown.

  4. Yes, your comparison with (not to) hockey is exactly right.

  5. Pretty rare to have a man down for the rest of the game (This did happen in the test at the weekend, more common to have someone sent off for 10 minutes for foul play - which also happened at the weekend)

  6. I wonder how many would agree with you, though, that it ruins the spectacle. I can think of many games where having a man down appeared to inspire the team to really great efforts, it can add tension and excitement - how will the team hold on for ten minutes at which time they get a refreshed and possible annoyed player back on the field. I dont think it ruined the spectacle at the weekend. The ABs were clearly the better side and they managed to win even thought hey one fewer player at the end than the South Africans

  7. I'm slightly surprised by the comment about American football. I would have thought that a system under which a sent-off player could be replaced, ie minimal consequence for the team, would create an incentive to send on a hard man with no other purpose than to do whatever necessary to take the other team's best player out of the game (which is incidentally what du Plessis did), let him be sent off and replace him with an actual player who now has an easier game. Why do you think the rule doesn't have that effect in American football?

  8. For the simple reason that the post-match consequences to a player for behaving in that way are too severe. And if the player can credibly pull the Nuremberg defence (I was told to do it), the coach would be banned for life.