Should players be sent off for an ‘unlucky’ red card?

Former Welsh referee Nigel Owens, seen here with Springbok captain Siya Kolisi and former All Blacks skipper Kieran Read, wants the goal-line drop-out to be removed from rugby’s laws. Photo: BackpagePix

Former Welsh referee Nigel Owens, seen here with Springbok captain Siya Kolisi and former All Blacks skipper Kieran Read, wants the goal-line drop-out to be removed from rugby’s laws. Photo: BackpagePix

Published Mar 23, 2024


Cancel the goal-line drop-out, and simplify when the ball is deemed to be in touch. Those were two rugby laws that renowned referees Nigel Owens and Jaco Peyper would like to see changed to improve the spectacle of the sport.

The now-retired match officials addressed the media in a Vodacom United Rugby Championship press conference this week to discuss arguably the most important part of the game, in order to create fairness to both teams and ensure the safety of the players.

When asked which law they would like to change, Welsh ref guru Owens – who retired in 2020 after taking charge of exactly 100 Test matches, and is a URC referee selector – said: “I would certainly look at substitutions, the way they’re used and how many you could have.

“If the two teams put on all their subs, you’ve got 16 new players on the field in the last 20 minutes playing against 14 players who have been on for 60 minutes.

“I think (changing it) would help the safety of the game because if players are conditioned to play just 40 or 50 minutes, then they would be able to carry much more weight, and the collisions are much bigger.

“The way the game is played is different, and it would reduce the impact in the collisions I think. Also, I think it would help open up the game as well, particularly in the second half.

“There’s nothing worse for a referee when there is a great game of rugby going on, and then stop, sub on, another stoppage, sub on.

“That’s one I would like to have a look at, but the one I would like to change pretty much now is the goal-line drop-out.

“I don’t think that has worked. It has probably given the advantage to the defence, and rugby has always given the benefit out of the doubt to the attack.

“It was brought in to stop the constant kicks to touch for a five-metre lineout, which meant that teams will maul over, which is pretty much impossible to defend – and then when they were held up, it would be a goal-line drop-out.

“That was hopefully going to encourage teams to not kick to the corner so much to set up a maul – they’ll play off the top of the lineout and spread the ball wide.

“I don’t think that has happened. Pretty much every lineout that goes to the corner is going to be a maul set-up still.

“The other aspect from an attractive and safety point of view was to try to reduce the amount of pick and go (carries) when you are a few metres from the tryline.

But I haven’t seen that visibly, as we still see all those pick and go’s.

“I would change the goal-line drop-out tomorrow if I could – but I can’t!”

Peyper, who is now a laws advisor to the Springbok team after retiring earlier this year following 67 Tests, felt that it was a tricky situation when determining whether a ball had gone into touch from a penalty kick, especially when players try to prevent the ball from going out.

“One that springs to mind is the touch law, which is too complicated. You catch the ball and you land inside, and sometimes you jump and the ball crosses the plane of touch – why don’t we make it consistent and simpler?” Peyper said.

“Another one that steals a lot of space is remaining in front of a kicker outside 10 metres. I know Super Rugby has already trialled it, and we have to look at more data. A fast back-three can then run it back and create more opportunities and some spectacle for us.”

One of the main contentious issues at the moment is a proposed 20-minute red card, and Owens was not exactly sold on the idea.

“What I think we need to look at – and this is a personal view – is that we need to sit down and relook at exactly what is a red card,” the 52-year-old said.

“If something is completely accidental or even careless, but there was no recklessness in it – it wasn’t an act of thuggery, or you weren’t charging in with the head or shoulder and not caring where you hit somebody...

“If it was an act where you are sitting there and going ‘Oh, that’s unlucky’, then we need to look at it (and say) ‘Well, why are we giving a red card for something that is unlucky and there was no recklessness in it?’.

“So, we need to differentiate between exactly what warrants a clear red card. And for me, if you go flying into a ruck with your shoulder first and your arms behind you, straight into the head of a player – which is a complete act of recklessness and dangerous – then you should be sent off, but shouldn’t be replaced in 20 minutes.

“So, they need to look exactly at how this all works. That’s why at the moment, I think we are stuck between a rock and a hard place, or trying to paper over (it).

“We don’t want to spoil the game (and have) somebody sent off unluckily for 60 minutes and they’re down to 14 men.

“But my question would be, well, if somebody is very, very unlucky, then why is he given a red card?

“We also have to remember that player safety is hugely paramount, and we have to change player behaviour and get them out of that recklessness.

“I can understand the need for 20 minutes, when somebody is unlucky, but that needs to be addressed, whether it should be a red card or not.

“Or should it be a different sanction for a different red card? Who knows. But I am a little bit worried that if it gets into the laws, you are just going to be down to 14 men for 20 minutes, are we then taking away from what we need to be really strong on, and that is changing player behaviour and making the game as safe as we possibly can.

“If you look at the tip tackle or contact in the air, referees went really strong (on it) and players were sent off, and we rarely see tip tackles anymore.

“And very rarely do we see the recklessness of taking the player out in the air. Yes, it happens sometimes, but not as it was before as referees went strongly on it, players were banned and it changed player behaviour.

“But for some reason, we are still struggling with changing player behaviour when it comes to recklessness around clear-outs and head contact, in getting those tackles lower. You see some teams are consciously trying to do that, and sometimes others are not.

“I’m not emotionally attached for or against the 20-minute red card, but I just think at the moment, it is a bit of a knee-jerk reaction in trying to find a balance of keeping people happy when people are going ‘Oh, you’ve spoilt the game, they’re down to 14 men’, compared to a clear red card, which is there for a reason.

“There needs to be a little more time spent on this, and let’s look at the whole picture and make sure we get it right, rather than just something to bring over the cracks, and we don’t see a change in player behaviour, especially when it comes to head contact.”

Owens added that the television match official (TMO) should be used as a back-up and that their involvement should be reduced, and that the on-field referees should be supported to make more decisions themselves.

Peyper was asked about whether referees should conduct post-match interviews to explain some of their decisions, and he was largely in favour of it, but wanted match officials to be given training to handle that kind of situation: “People want transparency, so we should work it out.”

Both Owens and Peyper were asked about the Neil Jenkins incident from the Six Nations, where he as the Wales water carrier had a go at French referee Mathieu Raynal, and they both didn’t have a problem with team members speaking to them – but that it should be done with respect and not become a “free-for-all”.

Peyper added that he was excited about his role with the Boks, but that he was also going to help bring through the next two or three top referees through SA Rugby.