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Stricter penalties on the cards

Twenty-one yellow cards and a red one already in just two weeks of Super Rugby. The head hunt is on.

Rugby has a problem with head injuries, and 70 percent of concussions come from tackles, and so rugby has decided to crack down.

On Friday in Hamilton, Blues loose forward Stephen Luatua was red-carded for an off-the-ball high shot. I’ve heard people saying it would have been a yellow last year, but I’m not so sure. It was pretty bad, and a four week suspension was warranted on top of the damage it did to the chances of his team.

Whenever this happens it raises debate about the impact of a red card on the game. Frustrated fans see the contest adversely affected, the outcome becoming a formality.

There are calls for teams that have had a player sent off to be allowed to bring on a replacement, maybe after ten or 15 or 20 minutes.

I don’t agree with this. If we are going to reduce, or stamp out foul play that threatens the well-being of players, then the red card must remain the ultimate deterrent. If a player knows he will let his whole team down, is that not an incentive to stay on the straight and narrow? If he can be replaced after being sent off, does that not lessen his sense of responsibility?

And besides, there are some dark corners of the rugby world where a coach might contemplate starting a hit-man to take out a key opponent, knowing that within minutes of him being banished for his foul deed, he can be replaced with a superior member of his squad.

People in this part of the world also trumpet the system used in Australian rugby league, where an act of suspected foul play is put “on report” to be scrutinised later, without affecting the outcome of the game in progress, beyond a penalty, or in rare cases, a sin binning.

Personally, I think that’s a cop out, and it has done little to dissuade players from illegal play.

In our pre-season commentators briefing at SKY NZ we were told by the refs that high shots would be policed along the following basic, but clear principles.

Indirect contact with head/neck with no force = penalty.

Indirect contact with force = yellow card

Direct contact with force = red card

If these principles are applied uniformly and consistently then we should have the desired effect.

But just as action is being taken to close one can of worms, another has well and truly opened with the contents slithering out in all directions.

I refer to the almost hopeless task of trying to deal with players leaping into the air to take high balls, while others make the split-second decision as to whether to challenge, or bail out.

This never used to be a problem back in the day when a fullback or winger would stand feet firmly planted, braced for impact, hoping to take the ball cleanly and maybe call for a mark before getting barreled to the ground.

Now we see players racing in leaping to the air and claiming the ball in spectacular fashion….it’s thrilling, its sublime skill and it’s a fantastic way of defusing the bomb. Players like Ben Smith have turned it into an art form.

Trouble is it’s also dangerous, and rugby has found itself in a no-win situation in trying to eliminate that danger.

In the pulsating Highlanders Crusaders game we saw just how difficult it is to get it right.

Malakai Fekitoa was sin binned at a crucial stage for bringing down the jumper, when he had been making what appeared to be a genuine attempt to contest the high kick.

It proved to be a key moment in the game.

It is a Catch 22. We want a contest, but we have to protect the players. A player deliberately taking out an airborne player is one thing, but we are now seeing players punished when they have made a legitimate attempt to contest, but as in the case of Fekitoa get it fractionally wrong.

And shouldn’t the player coming forward and leaping also have a duty of care? Right now they are risking life and limb to catch a ball, in the knowledge that if it goes wrong their opposition will suffer either a penalty or a card.

To be honest I can’t see an obvious answer but I fear we are going to see the contest in the air legislated out of the game.

The decision by Saru to tighten their laws on Springbok eligibility for overseas based players will be seen by many as a step in the right decision.

But you could also argue it is a half measure that might not help the situation much at all.

Australia has used this formula, albeit with a higher ceiling, and without the open slather in World Cup year, and it seems to have only been a partial success.

In order to be a Springbok, a player with fewer than 30 caps, a very low number in this day and age, must stay at home and fight for his place in the team, in the knowledge that he may or may not get the job ahead of an established overseas player, and in World Cup year, may miss out to anyone.

By making it open in World Cup year is to create the risk of a mass exodus right when you don’t need it.

We know the state of the rand is a massive factor, but it seems here that Saru is trying to dance and play in the orchestra at the same time.

I still think the biggest issue is the toll taken on players based overseas, especially in France, for clubs who don’t care about a players international aspirations. Look at the way Duane Vermeulens game has been blunted.

SANZAAR are meeting this week to discuss, and try and come up with a more workable, fair formula for Super Rugby.

Super Rugby is losing audience numbers in some key markets, because there are too many teams, some of them not really good enough, and because the format is too hard to follow, and uneven in its qualifying system.

The simplest answer is to reduce it by at least two teams so we could got back to a full round robin with everyone playing everyone else once before the playoffs.

But who’s going to let that happen?

Argentina are there with the approval of World Rugby, and must stay.

I’m in favour of a presence in Japan, but I also think they are disrespecting a great opportunity by not backing the Sunwolves to the hilt. John Kirwan last week suggested their champion club side should qualify, bolstered by invitation players which might get around the disinterest from the industrial giants who own the domestic clubs. If they keep going the way they are it will be hard to justify their involvement.

Australia would surely be better off with four teams, a better concentration of their top players, and less of a drain on their already stretched finances, but the Rebels, the Force and the Players Association are steeling themselves for a fight.

And South Africa surely has one team too many, and the reasons have been well discussed.

It really depends on whether the member nations are prepared to put the importance of this highly important championship ahead of their own self-interest.

If they do, it might be a first.

Finally a word on the weekend's action.

Having tipped a woeful five out of nine last week, I’m not going there again, but congratulations to the Cheetahs, Force, Sharks and Chiefs for throwing egg all over my face!

Just a few observations.

The Lions were much better, much sharper this weekend and again showed they have a multi-faceted game, using the driving maul to great effect to dominate the Waratahs up front, but still able to give the ball plenty of fresh air.

We featured Rohan Janse von Rensburg on our Rugby Nation show. This guy has a touch of Japie Mulder about his play, with tremendous physical presence, but also has a great ability to offload in the tackle which is essential in the modern game.

He and Jesse Kriel or a fit-again Damien de Allende could make a dynamic Springbok midfield.

Is it fair to say the influence of Paul Feeney is making a positive imprint at the Stormers? They are looking good.

The Bulls have not made a good start and I see a lot of people are criticizing Handre Pollard right now, but let’s remember the old adage of form being temporary, class permanent. He is coming back from a long payoff and needs time. People want to blame him for the Bulls not functioning, but it may be an effect rather than a cause.

And the Cheetahs have shown that no matter how much the big boys raid their stocks, they will play with passion and enterprise and no small degree of skill. They are always fun to watch.

Things are going well in New Zealand with the Crusaders, Chiefs and the Hurricanes all 2 from 2 and looking solid, and in the case of the ‘Canes, spectacular. The Blues are getting their All Blacks back and I wouldn’t write them off, but the Highlanders have big injury concerns.

It wasn’t such a good weekend in Australia, with the defiant Force scoring their only win at the expense of the Reds, the Rebels belted in Wellington, the ‘Tahs well done in Jo’berg and the Brumbies simply not doing enough with the ball and allowing the Sharks to come back and score a worthy, and important win to take home with them. But for a missed forward pass in the Brisbane game they would be 2 from 2.

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