Pieter Labuschagne of Japan is hit by a high tackle from Ben Lam of Samoa. Pic: Getty Images.

Bunker Mentality Over Cards Leaves World Cup Fans Seeing Red

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From Hamish Stuart in France

Wales may have been handed a break in their fixtures before this weekend, but plenty of Wales fans have stayed out in France and remain at the party.

There were lots of Welsh jerseys at the Uruguay v Namibia game in Lyon and a bit of Welsh singing during the anthems when New Zealand thrashed Italy a few days later in the same city.

No wonder.

The capital of French cuisine at the heart of Beaujolais country is a place with attractions to keep you occupied.

From the Roman amphitheatre and grand cathedral, to the food delights of Les Halles Paul Bocuse, the Welsh shirts were in evidence.

The Welsh supporters have had plenty to digest, too, along with the food.

Firstly, there’s the debate over whether DragonBet have got it right making Ireland and South Africa joint-favourites to win the tournament at 3/1.

Also near the top of the agenda in our group, and many near to us in the grounds, were the head high tackles, shoulder charges, yellow cards, red cards, the whole mystery and confusion.

The battle lines on each side are easy to draw.

Rugby has no future unless players start tackling lower, say one school.

It’s a physical game and as long as it is not deliberate, they should not be punished, say the other.

What is harder is where between those two positions the line is drawn by World Rugby.

The difficulty is which of two good things should take precedence. Do we want clear explanations or a  fast-moving game.

The bunker system – taking the red card decision out of the hands of the referee to allow what was once called a TMO to review events – is good in many ways.

The message about head high tackling has not reached some teams, though.

Japan v Samoa would have been extended by 10-12 minutes if every decision had been taken through to the final conclusion by the referee on the pitch.

So far, so good, then.

And, having survived, Japan are now a tasty 4/1 to beat Argentina and claim that quarter-final clash against Wales.

Or, you might fancy Samoa to beat England this weekend at 10/1.

But the inconsistency on those referee calls has been staggering.

It probably did not help that England’s Tom Curry was chosen for a soft red card early on, because if that was meant to draw a line in the sand in keeping the head out of bounds, then it has not worked.

Plenty of players have only seen yellow after a head-on-head contact which looked very similar.

Samoa wing Ben Lam has seen both yellow and then red for two tackles, where it appeared the only difference was which shoulder used to crash into the head – left then right.

Those were in the two games against Argentina and Japan – both in the orbit of Wales fans.

And this is where the bunker system falls down.

The detail of the decision goes on behind closed doors. The referee gives a brief summary at best, and there is no understanding why one is red and one is yellow.

There is a hint every now and then that force is the differentiating factor.

But if players are to learn to aim lower, then that mitigation needs to be used only where the tackler is completely passive – and few have been more passive than Curry.

A glut of 20-30 red cards would have gone a long way to solving the problem at a time when former Wales international Alix Popham and many other former players suffering from brain injuries are in the news for a fund-raising swim across the channel.

That reminder of the bigger picture seems to have escaped those locked away in World Rugby’s own bunker.

But maybe they do not want red cards to be the biggest talking point of their once-in-four-years celebration.

One way around it would be for the detailed explanation of each decision – the one included in the officials’ post-match report – to be released to the media and made publicly available on the website as soon as possible.

No-one likes a smart-arse, but on this occasion the person in the corner explaining exactly why it was yellow rather than red, just might get a hearing in the cafes and bars.

So, while high tackling is a scourge in the game, it was impossible to leave the New Zealand v Italy game without some complicated thoughts.

It is possible that language problems meant the Italians only understood the first two words of the World Rugby message: Don’t Tackle High.

New Zealand’s brilliance was allowed to flourish without the sort of challenge most sides would look to employ.

Perhaps, that is why all the world’s rugby coaches are so keen to encourage their players to risk punishment.

It has been worked out that each side will face a red card around one in eight games on average.

As England seem to have cornered the market for red cards in recent months, the average for the rest must be even lower.

Better to risk a red card one in eight than the 100% guarantee of embarrassment against the All Blacks.


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