A red card could ruin the Rugby World Cup final – the game needs fairer, safer rulings on the field

In the 46th minute of the 2023 Rugby World Cup (RWC) pool match between contenders France and pretenders Namibia, with the rampaging Europeans ahead by a thumping 54 points to nil, the wilting Welwitschias forfeited a player to a yellow card.

Within eight minutes, the card had bled to red. The mismatch worsened. Close to the final whistle, with France now up 96-0, the Namibian desert turned yellower still. Now 15 cats chased 13 mice for the dying embers of a farce.

What’s the point?

As a legal specialist in conflict resolution and mediation, I argue there has to be a better way. Rugby rules are rightly known as the “laws” of the game, and they are essentially designed to resolve the conflicts inherent in a physical contest over an oval ball. There is substantial crossover with systems for conflict resolution in other areas of life and work.

Wayne Barnes, who will referee the RWC final between New Zealand and South Africa this weekend, is also a barrister by trade. As such, he will know where the onus should lie when critical decisions need to be taken in a trial between two elite teams.

Unfair and unsafe

To be a riveting spectacle, the power sport of rugby must be as safe and fair as possible for each of a match’s 80 minutes. That means 15 playing 15 at all times. The spectacle is lost whenever there is a mismatch in numbers.

In a collision contest, 14 against 15 hurts the game; 13 against 15 is unwatchable – and dangerous.

As one would expect, it is generally the weaker of the two teams, already struggling to put up a defence, that concedes penalties and haemorrhages players. A valiant team can hold out against greater numbers, but only exceptionally.

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Commonly, the game dynamics are blighted and the depleted team has points racked up against them. Game over, fun over.

It is also unsafe. Rugby is an impact sport, with bodies being put on the line. It promotes physical resilience in the face of what are essentially authorised assaults. Players competing at the top level are playing at their limit.

To oblige them to overextend is to invite bodily collapse. That is not a good idea. Heart failure ranks with brain trauma as a risk.

Bad rules mean bad results

Some sendoffs are indisputable, such as for the dangerous tackle on French captain Antoine Dupont during the Namibia game. It meant a barely recovered Dupont faced off against South Africa in the quarterfinal, a factor that may have accounted for France’s knife-edge loss in that game.

But many yellow cards are hotly disputed. Knowledgeable rugby commentators, coaches, players and former referees often assert – with evidence – that a call at the breakdown could just as well have gone the other way.

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Some yellow card offences are risible. If they are specified in the rules, the rules need revisiting. Attempted intercepts of passes are a case in point: if they result in a knock-on, it warrants a scrum, not a sending off. The attacking team must learn to pass better.

Dubious referee calls resulting in sendoffs and mismatches – even when made in good faith – can and do ruin matches. Sometimes there is redemption as the game rolls on. Mostly there is not.

Essentially, good refereeing is about good dispute resolution. Yes, rules are central to the integrity of the game. When calls are marginal and the impacts disproportionate, however, the rules need to change.

Balance in competition needs to be maintained. Justice in sport for the players and fans demands that no one be robbed in the result.

Rugby can learn from other codes

The Australian Football League (AFL) – “Aussie Rules” – does it better: 18 play 18 at all times, across four quarters. Players are cited for fouls. Territory is awarded in real time to those offended against.

Each week of the playing season the AFL tribunal assesses the citations and dishes out penalties where warranted – typically suspensions – based on thorough, defended inspection.

Umpires are spared the curse of making poor calls that could unduly affect game outcomes. Fans are not given more cause to be apoplectic.

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Rugby union would be improved if sendings off were reserved for genuinely bad actors. Yellow and even red cards may may well be warranted – called in real time by the referee, assistant referees and the television match official (TMO).

But to preserve safety and the spectacle, those exiled should immediately be replaced from the reserves bench. Always 15 on 15.

If the yellow card offence occurs in the attacking red zone, a penalty try should be awarded, with the conversion kick to be taken from the touchline. If the offence occurs elsewhere, rugby could borrow from AFL, with a penalty given 50 metres closer to the offending team’s goal line (up to the five-metre line).

Where a red card offence is adjudged, the player should be ejected and have to face a post-match tribunal. A replacement is, of course, needed on the field. No matter where on the field the crime occurred, a penalty try should be awarded between the posts.

Hopes for a fair final

Until there is reform, however, the onus of proof is always on the prosecution – in this case the match officials – just as it is in a courtroom.

This will be especially important at the Stade de France in Paris this weekend when the All Blacks and South Africa both go for a record fourth Rugby World Cup title.

In the event of an “incident” – and there will be several – we must hope the benefit of the doubt applies, and 15 continue to play 15. Only if the case is beyond doubt on the visible evidence should there be an unlevel playing field for ten or more minutes.

Let the show go on, intact. For rugby heaven’s sake.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Clive Thompson, University of Cape Town.

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Clive Thompson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.