The mixed reaction to Jordie Barrett’s red card in Bledisloe Cup III has at least made one thing abundantly clear — that having the trial red-card replacement law in place for the Rugby Championship was one of SANZAAR’s smarter moves in recent times.
But that also a further delineation perhaps needs to be made if the trial is ever going to see the light of day globally, so that incidents of foul play such as punching, rucking, shoulder charges or swinging arm high tackles, where the intent is abundantly clear, can still be sanctioned by a send-off where the player cannot be replaced.
When Barrett leapt into the air to catch a Tate McDermott box-kick at Optus Stadium on Sunday afternoon, extending his right leg into the chasing Marika Koroibete’s head, it was clear that the All Blacks fullback would be sanctioned by the TMO once the incident had been reviewed.
While the shade of the card produced by referee Damon Murphy came as a shock to many, including commentators, spectators at the ground, fans watching on at home and most of all Barrett himself, by reviewing World Rugby’s lawbook around foul play you can see how Murphy and his fellow officials came to the decision.
World Rugby’s laws on dangerous play run 16 points deep. But it is the first two which directly refer to Barrett’s incident.
“Players must not do anything that is reckless or dangerous to others,” Law 9.11 reads.
By making contact with Koroibete’s head, there is no doubt Barrett contravened the law.
“A player must not physically or verbally abuse anyone. Physical abuse includes, but is not limited to, biting, punching, contact with the eye or eye area, striking with any part of the arm (including stiff-arm tackles), shoulder, head or knee(s), stamping, trampling, tripping or kicking,” Law 9.12 follows on.
Whether it was intentional or not, by extending his leg and in a forward motion Barrett was correctly deemed to have kicked Koroibete in the head.
While some laws in World Rugby’s foul play section have the predetermined sanction of “penalty”, the page otherwise is headed by the “Principle” which states that “a player who commits foul play must either be cautioned or temporarily suspended or sent off.”
And then there is World Rugby’s Head Contact Process, though that does not specifically pertain to an incident of kicking such as Barrett’s. The process, which was first brought in and then again updated to help referees come to a decision on dangerous contact with the head, states that it can be applied to high tackles, shoulder charges, dangerous cleanouts, head-to-head collisions, and a leading elbow/forearm. It does not mention “kicking”.
World Rugby’s Head Contact Process then proceeds to present “questions and considerations” around whether head contact has occurred; was it foul play; what was the degree of danger; is there any mitigation?
Included in that section are the considerations of “low force vs. high force” and “line of sight” both of which will likely help the All Blacks make a case that Barrett deserved a yellow, rather than a red.
A recent comparison for Barrett’s red card can be drawn with that of Highlanders winger Tevita Nabura, who was sent off for kicking the Waratahs’ Cam Clark who, like Koroibete, was chasing through on a high kick during a Super Rugby match in Sydney in 2018.
But where Barrett appeared to be extending his leg as more a move of catching technique and was still focused on the ball, Nabura had already taken possession, looked directly at Clark and then extended his right boot straight into the winger’s jaw with his studs up.
It was a clear red card, whereas there is certainly a decent case to be made that Barrett’s was not, which All Blacks coach Ian Foster indicated New Zealand management will likely do by appealing the decision in the coming days.
“Pretty surprised, to be honest,” Foster said of the decision.
“We’ll go and have a good look at it but certainly we’ll probably be putting a bit of a case together for that one.
“He just lost balance and you could see he tilted (in the air).
“I feel sorry for the refs in situations like this because technically they saw things and they make their decision so I get all that.”
And that is the value of the 20-minute red card replacement law trial, which is only in play during the Rugby Championship at the request of its SANZAAR stewards.
World Rugby’s Law Review committee voted against including the 20-minute red card, which had previously been used in Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby AU, alongside the other law trial variations brought in from Aug. 1.
It is believed that English and French officials were in staunch opposition to the trial as it was not sufficient enough of a deterrent for foul play.
That is understandable, particularly when you consider that only two years ago Scott Barrett was sent off at the same venue for a shoulder charge on the Wallabies skipper, a move that was clearly deliberate and pre-meditated, at least far more than brother Jordie’s ever was.
Scott Barrett’s shoulder charge undoubtedly warranted a send-off and the All Blacks deserved to be a player down for 45 minutes as a result two years ago.
On Sunday in Perth, they did not.
Was Barrett’s boot to the face of Koroibete clumsy? Absolutely. Was it “intentional or highly reckless” as World Rugby’s Process Questions and Considerations read? No.
Even Dave Rennie, who had just seen his side swept by the All Blacks, could see that.
“I think it’s good that we’ve got a 20-minute red card at the minute, because it’s certainly not malicious,” Rennie 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.”
World Rugby’s crackdown on dangerous play in recent years is admirable and totally justified, particularly when you compare it with Latrell Mitchell’s dangerous tackle on Joey Manu in Round 24 of the NRL, which only earned the Rabbitohs fullback a sin-binning at the time and then later a six-week ban.
Rugby is light years ahead of its rival code when it comes to the promotion of player safety, but in getting there it has created a lengthy framework and consideration process that will continue to test even the most astute officiating team moving forward.
Does there need to be an “orange card” that clearly delineates between a deliberate act of foul play and one like Barrett’s that has is unintentional and blurs the line between yellow and red?
Potentially, but that may only serve to further complicate the aforementioned process.
For now, the red-card replacement is indeed a worthwhile trial. The insights gained over the next four weeks might not be enough to get it over the line globally on a permanent basis, but it certainly demonstrated its merit on Sunday afternoon.