Seeing red: Replacements still on table
It had enormous support in the Southern Hemisphere, but not the northern.
Dave Rennie on the proposal to replace red-carded players
World Rugby chief executive Alan Gilpin hears the resentment, but says the ability to replace red-carded players is not off the table, despite being excluded from five law trials that begin in all competitions next month.
Gilpin, who succeeded Brett Gosper in March, revealed the vexed issue of switching test eligibility after a specified standdown — a policy that would significantly strengthen the Pacific Island nations — also remains up for debate.
As part of the push to prioritise player welfare, World Rugby this week confirmed five laws, including the goal line drop out, 50-22 kick and three breakdown changes, as well as introducing a panel of independent concussion consultants, will be trialled during the next year before deciding whether they will be adopted through to the 2023 World Cup in France.
The ability to replace red-carded players after 20 minutes — a rule successfully trialled in this year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa and Transtasman competitions — was not adopted, however. Its exclusion sparked strong criticism from All Blacks and Wallabies coaches Ian Foster and Dave Rennie, both of whom were involved in the consultation process.
Rennie went as far to suggest the northern nations blocked the move to carry the red card replacement forward to the test arena.
“It had enormous support in the Southern Hemisphere, but not the northern. I’m not sure, I don’t understand it,” Rennie said last month when news leaked that it would not be included.
In an interview with the Weekend Herald this week, Gilpin attempted to explain the rationale for rejecting red card replacements.
“We’ve seen the frustration,” Gilpin said. “It’s such a complex area. What you’ve seen in the last number of months is us introduce this head contact process, which is the evolution of what we used to call the high tackle sanction framework that was introduced before the last World Cup.
“That’s where, particularly in the last six months, we’ve seen higher instances of red cards.
“Concussion and injury prevention is about behavioural change and getting that from players and coaches at all levels of the game to make sure there is less contact with the head and, therefore, less of these issues.
“There’s a feeling in some parts of the world that anything that might mitigate that or lessen the sanction for that is not what we want now in terms of driving that behaviour.”
Advocates for replacing redcarded players argue it allows the integrity of the contest to be retained, while mitigating the more frequent and extreme punishment for accidents in a fast-paced collision sport rather than malicious incidents.
“As with all these things, there’s a careful balance between safety and making sure the game remains a spectacle that people want to watch,” Gilpin said.
“Ultimately there’s lots of great debate about the red card replacement in the various groups that considered this.
“One of the things recognised was the need for further assessment of red card replacements. If you implement that as a law, does that change behaviours in a different way? What are the consequences of doing that?
“Even though we haven’t moved that on to the global trial, that’s not to say it won’t continue to be trialled in a number of competitions and more evidence gathered that will then inform the next stage.
“Despite the frustration some people have voiced, that’s not finished in terms of understanding what that can do.”
The other issue of test eligibility is firmly back on the agenda following the All Blacks’ dire 102-0 rout of Tonga in their opening test of the year.
Tonga were severely compromised by the Covid-19 landscape that restricted access to European-based players. Yet a change in eligibility laws to allow players with dual heritage captured by test nations such as New Zealand, Australia, England, Ireland and France to switch allegiance after a three-year standdown could transform the competitiveness of the Pacific Islands in particular.
While New Zealand Rugby is understood to have supported a three-year standdown, countries such as Ireland, Scotland and Italy continue to block change.
As it stands, the only loophole to switch eligibility is playing sevens at an Olympic qualifying tournament — an avenue recently used by Tonganborn former All Blacks midfielder Malakai Fekitoa.
At a time when the Wallabies will field three Fijian-born players in their starting team against France this weekend, and Nepo Laulala (Samoanborn), Sevu Reece (Fiji) and Shannon Frizell (Tonga) will represent the All Blacks in Hamilton, the issue of eligibility remains in plain sight.
Despite repeatedly rejecting changes to the regulation eight eligibility laws, Gilpin says World Rugby continues to monitor the issue.
“It’s not off the table, there’s still ongoing debate, a lot of work being done to understand the different views and implications of what change in eligibility regulation will mean in different circumstances.
“There’s lots of interest around the Pacific Islands players and what that would mean but there’s lots of consequences in different parts of the world. There’s been good discussion on that in recent months, and there will be more to come in that space, so it’s definitely not off the table.
“There is a view that players who have played for the All Blacks should be able to go back and play for the Pacific Island nations but can this apply in the other direction as well?
“That’s part of the discussion that needs to be fully understood because you’ve got to make sure there’s fairness and integrity in how that can be applied.”