CHRIS FOY: Let’s not ruin another Six Nations with reckless red card calls
The stage is set for an exciting Six Nations, but the nagging fear within the sport is that another series of red cards will ruin the tournament – and the omens are not good. At all.
When sports mail convened a panel of experts last week to discuss the championship, the long debate was all but over when Andy Nicol raised a relevant and alarming point. “We haven’t talked about something that could be a huge factor – red cards,” said the former Scotland captain. “A slightly untimely tackle or contact could change all that.”
He is right, of course. The worry is that the fringe, high-stakes disciplinary decisions made by referees under pressure will significantly dictate the outcome of matches and the title race, once again.
Scotsman Zander Fagerson received a red card from the referee during last year’s Six Nations
That was the scenario last year, when there were a record five sackings, as Peter O’Mahony, Zander Fagerson, Bundee Aki, Paul Willemse and Finn Russell were all expelled. This is the same number of reds shown in the first 20 years of the Six Nations.
Wales won the award in 2021 after three of their games ended with the opposition down to 14 men. Exhausted teams can muster a heroic challenge – as Wasps did in their recent victory over European champions Toulouse – but more often than not the numerical imbalance is decisive.
It’s hard to imagine that this year’s edition of the Northern Hemisphere’s annual showpiece will avoid more dismissals and recriminations. Recent events have heightened tensions.
Last Friday, Jaco Peyper refereed Ulster against Scarlets in the United Rugby Championship, as a warm-up before taking charge of two Six Nations games. The South African sparked Welsh outrage when local winger Craig Gilroy was sent off with a yellow card after he bumped his shoulder into the head of Tom Rogers, who left for a head injury assessment and did not didn’t come back.
Ulster’s Craig Gilroy walked away with just a yellow card in a tackle last weekend against the Scarlets
More pressure on referees to make the right choices before the tournament
The ‘horrendous collision’ was not good for the sport, so it’s inevitable that officials will be given new orders to take a tough line. Rugby authorities are notoriously reactive, so they will be rocked by ugly images and outcry among the public and pundits.
Meanwhile, the only other referee to receive two league matches is Mike Adamson – who was lambasted for his handling of Harlequins’ draw against Castres in the Heineken Champions Cup earlier this month.
Prior to that, the Scot had sent Simon Zebo out of Munster but his dismissal was overturned by a disciplinary panel, who ruled it was not foul play. Adamson will oversee England against Wales at Twickenham, an occasion that always hangs on a knife edge.
Everyone hopes that all future games start and end at 15v15 – but that’s a dim hope. It is imperative that players and their coaches perceive the need to lower the height of tackles and avoid contact with the head. Of course, this is the top priority.
England referee Luke Pearce (right) gives French lock Paul Willemse a red card
Yet, as Nicol rightly suggests, the margins are so thin between fair play and what is called “foul play”. It’s as if there should be greater distinctions, to reflect the vast gulf between acts of violence or savage recklessness, for example, and hairy misjudgments amid high-speed dynamic competitions, characterized by late split-second changes in direction and height of the body.
Perhaps the 20-minute red card trial in the southern hemisphere – widely derided in those parts – had some merit after all, but with the caveat that only those whose offenses were deemed technical and lacking of malice, could be replaced after this period. .
And maybe Steve Hansen was right in 2018 when he said, “How do we regulate dirty gambling; the intentional stuff no one wants in the game, versus the gray stuff? Common sense must prevail. For the moment, it does not prevail.
THE PRIME MINISTER’S RETURN TO TV IS A SUCCESS
Premiership Rugby’s welcome return to terrestrial television was a success on Sunday as Sale stunned Leicester leaders in front of a full house.
It was a positive result for the domestic match as it was shown live on ITV after a new broadcast deal was confirmed by PRL.
But prime-time exposure won’t do much comfort for the Tigers, who have now lost their last two, with that 35-26 loss at Salford after being beaten by Wasps at Coventry.
Sale trailed 21-5 but turned things around with second-half tries from Ben Curry, Arron Reed and Dan du Preez.
Then Tom Roebuck’s try and two penalties from AJ MacGinty put Sale out of sight. Elsewhere, Wasps knocked out second-placed Saracens to bolster expectations that during the Six Nations the Premiership hierarchy is bound to be changed.
COVID WORKING BLOW AWAITS ENGLAND
Plans for the Six Nations in England are in turmoil as Harlequins center Joe Marchant has been forced into self-isolation after contracting Covid.
Head coach Eddie Jones had already come to terms with the loss of captain Owen Farrell, who was lined up to start inside the centre, to an ankle injury and now there is more disruption in the back line.
Marchant impressed when England beat world champions South Africa in November but are set to miss Saturday’s opener against Scotland at Murrayfield.
Jones could now choose Gloucester’s Mark Atkinson, who made his Test debut in the fall at 12, with Henry Slade operating in the 13 shirt. The other contingency plan would be Slade at 12 alongside Elliot Daly, Jack Nowell or the uncapped Luke Northmore.
Top loose prop Joe Marler is still in isolation, meanwhile, as he recovers from Covid, and it’s unclear when he’ll be free to return to training. And although an RFU update last night showed Courtney Lawes – the most likely alternate captain if fit – has been included in the squad, the Northampton striker is still going through protocols back in action, so he is in serious doubt for the game against Scotland.
With Marchant unable to train and Saints outside rookie Tommy Freeman sidelined after injuring a hamstring last Friday, Jones called up two wings, Newcastle’s Adam Radwan and Quins’ Louis Lynagh.