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Jordie Barrett red highlights pros of NZR and RA joining forces

Tony Johnson

The law variation that allowed Jordie Barrett to be replaced after being sent off in the third Bledisloe Cup test in Perth was the result of an all too rare case of accord amongst the Sanzaar nations.

The ability to send on a new player 20 minutes after a red card has been issued was trialled in Super Rugby, and while World Rugby baulked, the four member nations of the Southern Hemisphere alliance agreed to give it a run in The Rugby Championship.

The incident in question will be seen by its supporters as a gold plated validation of the initiative, in which the player concerned is banished from the game but the team faces only a temporary reduction in numbers.

As with most sports, the sending off in rugby was always about wilfully foul or dangerous play, but with the games ongoing, albeit flailing attempts to make things safer, the scope for a banishment has widened – from deliberate to reckless, to inadvertent and now even accidental.

Many of the latter three stem from just such incidents as the one involving Barrett and Wallabies wing Marika Koroibete, where a player gets airborne to field a high kick, and someone gets hurt, or there is at least potential for serious injury.

Jordie Barrett was sent from the field for striking Marika Koroibete in the head with his boot after leaping into the air for a high kick. (Photo by Richard Wainwright/Photosport)

More often it’s the chasing player who’s been carded, mainly for failing to pull out of a challenge when they’re not in a realistic position to contest the ball. You could argue that Koroibete was in no such position, and had Barret not made contact with his boot, then it’s the Wallaby winger who might have been penalised.

But once the contact was made with the face of Koroibete then ref Damon Murphy did what the laws required him to do.

Barrett’s ‘kick’, you would hope and trust, was a case of technique gone wrong, but it was at the very least clumsy, and had the potential to injure. Those who know Barrett would argue that it is simply not in his nature to harm a fellow player, but in the current climate, and in the moment, Barrett’s intentions were irrelevant. By the letter of the law, Murphy had no choice but to send him off.

But this is where the 20-minute law rule has some appeal.

We probably benefited from only having a 20-minute red card, I get that, but we were a keen supporter of that [rule change] even before the games and I think today’s thing probably justifies it.

All Blacks coach Ian Foster on the new rules for red cards

Had Barrett truly lashed out with his boot, it would have been a different matter, but does this act compare with a player being stamped on the head in a ruck, or taken out by a high shot, or shoulder charge, such as the Sonny Bill Williams incident in Wellington 4 years ago?

Surely incidents such as those, at the extreme end, still warrant the ultimate sanction of the player being banished from the field and unable to be replaced.

But if it’s a case of a player “getting it wrong” and acting without malicious intent, then maybe the 20-minute team punishment is the answer. The offender goes and cannot return, leaving his team to cope with a player down for a quarter of the match, a period that could prove defining, but the contest, and the spectacle are not necessarily ruined.

“It’s why all the SANZAAR countries are pretty united in wanting to carry on this global trial,” Foster said following the match.

“We probably benefited from only having a 20-minute red card, I get that, but we were a keen supporter of that [rule change] even before the games and I think today’s thing probably justifies it.”

Wallabies coach Dave Rennie and All Blacks coach Ian Foster were in agreement that the 20-minute red card rule is a change for the better. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Kiwi Wallabies coach Dave Rennie also backed the change following the game.

“I think it’s good that we’ve got a 20-minute red card at the minute, because it’s certainly not malicious,” he said. “But based on law, and you field the ball and you kick your foot out and you clip someone in the head, there’s gonna be repercussions for that.

“So I think the decision’s probably accurate and the fact that it’s only 20 minutes is a good thing.”

That then leaves the judiciary to sort out the degree of malice, and if needed, impose further sanction on the player.

It’s the killing of the game aspect that fires up opponents of the red card.

It’s not exactly out of character for World Rugby to resist an initiative from the Southern Hemisphere nations, a product of the deep suspicion with which the old guard seem to view any attempt from below the equator to make the game faster, more attractive or easier to understand.

The default setting of many rugby fans in Australiasia is to hail the system in rugby league, where players in the NRL are rarely sent off, but usually put on report to be dealt with later.

But this is surely a flawed system in which too much importance is placed on the spectacle, at the expense of player welfare, where the offending player can put a high shot on an opponent, stay on the field and then enter into some kind of plea bargaining on Tuesday night. It’s also an absolute cop-out for referees who sometimes seem more concerned with knowing the players’ names than with their wellbeing.

It’s not exactly out of character for World Rugby to resist an initiative from the Southern Hemisphere nations, a product of the deep suspicion with which the old guard seem to view any attempt from below the equator to make the game faster, more attractive or easier to understand.

But – and reluctant as I am to suggest yet another law to add to the several thousand already in existence – maybe with more games like the cracker we saw in Perth, we might end up with a new tier in the card system: yellow and 10 in the bin for professional fouls or repeat infringements; orange for the scenario such as the Jordie Barrett incident, where it’s deemed inadvertent dangerous play, and a replacement can be made after 20 minutes; and finally, and in extreme cases, red with no replacement for the really blatant stuff.

That way the message is delivered, but the team doesn’t always have to suffer the consequences of an individual “getting it wrong”.

All Blacks Codie Taylor (L) and Ardie Savea (M) left the field early in the win over the Wallabies in Bledisloe III after taking knocks to the head. (Photo by James Worsfold/Getty Images)

It’s certainly worth further scrutiny, and hopefully, open minds will prevail.

While on the question of player wellbeing, there was one other side issue from the match in Perth. As mentioned above, Damon Murphy got the red card right, and apart from a suspicion that he was guessing a bit at scrum time, he did a good job.

But, he should have stopped the game when two players, Codie Taylor and Ardie Savea, were down with obvious head knocks, the severity of which were confirmed when they failed the HIA. That really is a player welfare issue.

Finally, it was fantastic to see hostilities resume where it really counts: on the field, in glorious sunshine in front of a great crowd, and an altogether terrific match.

A sign surely, that it’s time to move on after 18 months of Covid-induced uncertainties, but also of boardroom power plays, tactlessness, provocation and half-truths from administrators who should be better. This occasion was a reminder to the alickadoos on both sides of the Tasman, of what’s really important.

They got it right with the 20-minute red card experiment, pat yourselves on the back people, and let’s get on with it.

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