Rugby, to its credit, is making good efforts to reduce the risk of head injuries in the game but clearly it needs to give its referees more discretion when enforcing its rules against dangerous play. The referee in last Saturday's second test between the All Blacks and France felt he had no choice but to order a player out of the match, leaving France a man short, for doing absolutely nothing.

The player was following up a kick, He could not help that All Black Beauden Barrett was leaping above him and fell dangerously after being upended by the contact with the player beneath him.

Now a World Rugby review panel has ruled the referee's decision was wrong. It has cancelled the red card issued to France's fullback Benjamin Fall which means he can play in the third test on Saturday but of course the ruling is too late to save the second test and the series.

The groans of the Wellington crowd last weekend when the referee reached for his red card were echoed in living rooms all around the country. It was not just the unfairness of the ruling but the fact it killed the match and the series.


The previous week at Eden Park the French had played in spirited fashion for 50 minutes until they lost a player to a poor ruling, that time for a high tackle. The All Blacks had then run away with the match.

Last Saturday they also started strongly but after the ordering off in the 12th minute their spirits dropped. The All Blacks ran in a couple of soft tries and by halftime the match was effectively over. The second half was a mess. France has been praised for its effort with 14 players but in truth, the spirit had gone out of the All Blacks too. Neither they nor the paying crowd, nor any true rugby fan, was interested in them recording another 60-point rout.

Rugby's ruling bodies ought to be very worried about this. The review panel that has cancelled the red card has made no criticism of referee Angus Gardner and nor should they. The Australian appears to be one of the better referees on the international stage at the moment.

This error was not Gardner's alone. Unlike the referee in the first test who reached for a card without even checking a television replay, Gardner consulted the linesmen and the television match official. They all watched slow-motion replays before Gardner decided he had "no option" but to do what he did.

Whenever the phrase "no option" is heard in any field of law enforcement it is an admission the law is too rigid, allowing no discretion to the enforcer in circumstances where common sense should apply. Yet the review panel has made no criticism of the rules the referee upheld. Rather, it had decided he had missed something important in the video replay that suggested Fall had been deflected into the danger zone under the jumping player.

The panel might be right, but the problem this incident highlights goes deeper. Rugby is a fast-moving game of frequent multiple collisions. Injuries happen in split seconds and video can usually show whether they were caused deliberately, recklessly or purely accidentally. The referee is in the best position to judge and rugby's rules should always let him do so.