This World Cup started just over two-and-a-half weeks ago, and it is already proving exceptional. Japan have proved the consummate hosts, filling beautiful grounds in beautiful cities; the so-called ‘big teams’ have delivered whilst the lesser rugby playing nations have shown customary grit and determination.
This year’s tournament has also been exceptional in a literal sense. With five already shown, it has seen more red cards than any previous World Cup, and we still have 20 matches to play. At this rate, as the games start carrying more meaning and intensity increases, we could see double figures of red cards at this World Cup. I’m certainly not saying I expect this to happen, but it could. And to put that into perspective, in 2011 we saw two reds, whilst four-years-ago there was only the one.
This flurry of red cards comes after the much-discussed rule changes to tackling initiated by World Rugby just four months prior to the start of the competition.
For those that are out the loop, these rules are concerned with shoulder charges and high tackles.
The rules basically state that, for shoulder charges, if there is any head or neck contact then it is a straight red card and that for high tackles if there is a high degree of danger in a tackle to the head or shoulder then that, too, is a straight red.
The nature of these rules, and the emphatic response by referees in this World Cup surely marks a new era for tackling in rugby.
One of the two red cards in the 2011 World Cup was Sam Warburton’s infamous sending-off in the semi-final against France for his tip-tackle on Vincent Clerc. At the time, whilst a red card was given, it was treated as a highly controversial decision. The ITV commentator said, “I don’t think there’s anything malicious in that, I think Sam Warburton has got a great hit on… there’s not much you can do about that,” whilst Eddie Butler in The Guardian wrote, “This was a foul, no question, but it was not a killer tackle. It was a yellow-card offence.”
If Warburton’s tackle had happened today in Japan, it would have been a sending-off, no questions asked.
This is made clear by Italy coach Connor O’Shea’s response to the incident involving Nicola Quaglio and Andrea Lovotti. When O’Shea saw the incident, he was resigned to the fact that both players would be getting sent-off and not just Lovotti.
“Yep, potentially,” O’shea responded when asked if he thought both men would be sent for an early bath, “when I saw it that’s what I radioed down, it could potentially be.” Consequently, both players have been handed a three-match ban and can only feature again if Italy make the final.
The contrasting response to the two incidents indicate how the sport has changed its approach to tackling over this decade and make clear that World Rugby’s new rules on shoulder charges and high tackles have affected the stance on tackling on a wholesale level.
There have been many different opinions from prominent figures regarding the rule changes, but it has been Matt Dawson who has spoken with the most sense coming out in support of World Rugby:
“There is going to be the short-term pain, with controversy, column inches and some unbalanced games,” writes Dawson in his BBC Sport column, “but millions of people around the world are watching these games. This is the chance to teach that lesson about high tackles.
“It has to be a policy shift that floods through the game and into the grassroots.”
This sentiment is key. Rugby must take advantage of its time in the limelight to affect the game for better, and to engender a new narrative of player protection as tantamount at all levels.
The number of red cards this World Cup has seen suggests this is exactly what it is doing.
By Will Sewell.