Joel Kulasingham looks back at a contentious week in rugby where fans got heated over the colour of a card and ultimately – after systematically destroying every counter argument – comes to the conclusion that the current World Rugby rule for in-air collisions is not perfect, but pretty good.
As Beauden Barrett's head hit the turf at the Caketin after a collision with French fullback Benjamin Fall on Saturday, a familiar debate played out almost instantly in newspaper columns and social media newsfeeds across the country.
Plenty of the reaction focused on the red card that followed, a seemingly harsh penalty for Fall who appeared to have his eyes fixed on the ball the entire time.
But referee Angus Gardner – as many pointed out – was simply ruling to the letter of the law, which seems to be as close to black and white as it gets in rugby: a late or mistimed challenge in the air that leads to a player landing on their shoulders, neck or head is a red card offence.
A helpful flowchart did the rounds on Twitter, laying out the likely logical process Gardner had to go through with the help of the TMO before ultimately brandishing the red card that would effectively end any possibility of a close second test.
The ensuing outrage came in several forms, from arguments about malice and intent, to the always nuanced laments about political correctness gone mad.
World Rugby later dismissed Fall's red card, stating that the in-air collision between the two players was caused by a slight push from All Blacks midfielder Anton Lienert-Brown, which cleared Fall of dangerous play.
This however doesn't take away from the fundamental point of division in this whole debate: the safety of the players versus the need to preserve what some have called the sanctity of the game.
Of course, it's not as simple as one over the other. But in the age of concussions and CTE, it was particularly striking to see that Barrett – who was forced to depart the game after failing a Head Injury Assessment following the challenge, also ruling him out of the third test on Saturday – and the scary fall that he suffered, was largely ignored.
From where I stood (or sat) – in the blogging chair, frantically trying to keep up and provide readable live commentary – the decision to hand out the red card (ignoring Lienert-Brown's supposed push) was clear and correct.
So in the spirit of social media debate (the place for the most in-depth of discussions), I will obliterate every argument I've seen made on social media against World Rugby's law on in-air contests – nuance guaranteed:
(Caveats: 1. Treat this as an intellectual exercise and ignore Lienert-Brown's "push", which may or may not have been overblown by World Rugby in a capitulation to public pressure. Most people didn't even notice the supposed collision and it wasn't part of the general debate surrounding the red card. 2. I'm assuming the flowchart above that was originally created and shared by an unknown fan is 100 per cent correct. 3. Don't @ me.)
Argument 1: Punishing the outcome without considering intent is dumb
I actually think punishing the outcome makes a lot of sense. By doing so, you're saying that the action itself is fine, as long as it doesn't put the player's shoulders, neck or head in danger. In punishing the outcome instead of the action, World Rugby are saying that in-air contests are inherently part of the game – you just have to do it safely. It then puts the onus on the players to go into challenges with more care.
Red cards are used to deter actions that are deemed dangerous. Players who are running in late, blindly and recklessly into in-air challenges should be discouraged, regardless of intent or malice. And giving room for referee interpretation when it comes to intent, only opens up a whole other can of worms and will lead to more inconsistency in decisions – which is not something rugby needs more of.
Also, the in-air challenge a few moments before the red card between Fall and Jordie Barrett shows that under the current laws – if players are careful and get their timing right – awesome aerial duels are still possible and legal.
Argument 2: The red card "ruined the game" therefore it shouldn't have been a red card
Three things that don't matter when it comes to trying to make the game of rugby safer for players:
1) It made it an uneven contest
2) The fact that people paid good money to watch the test
3) Your entertainment value.
Argument 3: Rugby has gone soft
Consider this statement: "I miss the game that I grew up loving."
Replace "game" with "country" and you have something pretty close to one of the fundamental tenets of Trumpism.
Okay, this is obviously a ridiculous equivalency. But it was pretty shocking to see the conservatism and lack of concern in rugby circles around the issue of protecting players' heads.
People, countries, sports evolve. Players are bigger, more athletic and more powerful than ever – and they are only getting better. Our knowledge around persistent head injuries is also getting better but we still have ways to go. But I struggle to see how looking out for the safety and wellbeing of players is somehow soft.
As we learn more about the dangers of this sport that we love, it's imperative that rugby evolves or – like the NFL – it could be detrimental not only for the players, but also for the survival of the sport itself.