New Zealand Rugby needs to take the utmost care to reduce head injuries in the game, and this season it is clearly doing so. The yellow cards handed out in the opening weekend of Super Rugby this season suggests referees have been told to show no leniency. But the card and penalty try awarded against a Chiefs player in their match with the Crusaders on Saturday night was surely taking things too far.
As the video on our website clearly shows, the Chiefs player was tackling an opponent who was attempting to score a try in the corner. As try-scorers are trained to do, the player dropped his head and shoulders low in his drive for the line.
The tackler succeeded in bundling him into touch but inevitably the tackler's arm came into contact with the opponent's head. Not deliberately, not swinging dangerously. The tackler's arms were around the opponent's shoulders and came into contact with his head as he tried to get down to the tryline.
The referee asked to see a video replay and after conferring with the television match official, they agreed it warranted a yellow card and a penalty try, since the try would have been scored had the tackler released his arms as soon as they made contact with the head. It is hard to see how the tackler could have done this in the split second it all happened.
Rugby must be one of the most difficult sports to referee. It has more rules than the average spectator knows or understands and contentious things happen at high speed. A referee has to make instant decisions and often these cannot be easy.
But it is normally fairly clear in a slow-motion video reply whether a deliberate and dangerous action has been committed. Too often these days, players are sent to the "sin bin" for no other reason than the rules give the referee no choice. His instructions give him no discretion.
If that is so, the instructions should be changed. The referee should always have the option of lenience if a technical offence was clearly not deliberate and not dangerous. One unfair ruling can ruin a match, as indeed it did on Saturday night.
Until the penalty try was awarded with 10 minutes to go, the Chiefs and the Crusaders were locked in a good close battle. The Chiefs had fought back from a poor start and briefly gained the lead before the Crusaders scored again to be ahead 26-23. But handed the penalty try and against a depleted Opposition, the Crusaders cantered away to win 45-23.
All players and coaches in the three-nation Super Rugby competition will have taken note of what happened to the Chiefs at the weekend. They will be trying to work out what a tackler is to do when a player is driving close to the ground. It is almost inevitable in these "pick and go" situations close to the line that a tackle will engulf the attacker's head.
Cerebral injuries must be reduced and rugby is doing well to send players for medical check-ups at the slightest possibility of concussion. But severe penalties should be kept within reason. Referees need to be given more discretion.