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Seeing red…

Charlie Ewels receives a red card during the recent Six Nations game between England and Ireland. Photo: James Crombie/INPHO

Few things get rugby fans talking (and raging) like a red card. Of course, the one that got the group chats fired up most recently, was the red handed out to Charlie Ewels in the 82nd second of the Six Nations game between England and Ireland on 12 March. By the letter of the law, it’s hard to dispute the fact that Ewels’ head clash with Ireland’s James Ryan, which saw Ryan leave the field, was a red. But dispute it fans have.

It seems straightforward – the referee rightly looked at the fact that Ewels didn’t attempt to go low, made direct contact with the head, and there’s a high degree of danger. Red all day. Many fans are arguing that because it was likely accidental (not many people intentionally run into another player headfirst, given the chances of knocking themselves out in the process!), it should have been mitigated down to yellow. But by the letter of the law, intention doesn’t play a role here. We saw a similar situation in the recent URC game between the Bulls and the Sharks, when Grant Williams also saw red for a similar head clash. The fact that it was unintentional comes into play when the citing commission is determining the length of the subsequent ban, but direct contact to the head with a high degree of danger is always going to be red. And rightly so.

Unpopular opinion time. I know lots of people (my rugby bestie included) hate red cards because they believe they are ruining the spectacle for fans, and that there should be mitigation in those kinds of situations, or the player should only be sent off for 20 minutes. I don’t agree – which has led to lots of heated WhatsApp debates, let me tell you. But there is a duty of care to ensure that players are as safe as possible on the field, and anything that acts as a deterrent to head injuries is a positive in my opinion. A 20-minute card is not a sufficient deterrent, and introducing another card between yellow and red will only complicate an already overly complex set of laws even further.

Yes, it’s a contact sport. Yes, players know there’s a high risk of injury when they sign up to play the game we love. Does that mean that we should shrug off the very real dangers associated with head injuries and repeated concussions? Just this week, news has broken of Stormers lock, David Meihuizen, being forced to retire at the age of 24, due to repeated concussions. Twenty. Four. His career should just be taking off. Pat Lambie, a player that should have had many, many more games in the Springbok jersey ahead of him, announced his retirement in 2019 when he was just 28 years old, for the same reason. Last year, at 32, Wallabies player Dane Haylett-Petty was also forced to retire due to the effects of concussion. There are many more examples. Even more scary are the players like New Zealander, Carl Hayman, diagnosed with early-onset dementia at the age of 41, which has been linked to concussion-related illness. It’s almost unthinkable for someone to have dementia at such a young age, and yet still, there are those who say he knew what he signed up for when he made a career out of rugby.

Pat Lambie in action. Photo: Gabriele Maltinti/Gallo Images

Is that really what we want for the sport we love? The players we cherish? An attitude of absolute disregard for their safety and future well-being? Yes, it is a contact sport, and a brutal one at that, and that’s part of why we love it – that synergy between the physical and the strategic is unparalleled in any other sport. But surely we can recognise the need to keep our players as safe as possible, especially when it comes to things like potential brain injuries. I’m as much a traditionalist as the next person when it comes to rugby, and changes to the game make me very twitchy, but in this case, as we learn more and more about the long-term effects of repeated concussions, we have to move away from the way things were done in the past. We can’t just write off contact with the head as “big rugby hits”. Accidents happen, there’s no way around that, but coaching and enforcing improved tackle technique is imperative at this point. Or we will keep seeing red cards, and fans will keep melting down over the spectacle of the game being ruined.

On this particular occasion, you could argue that even though England played essentially the entire match a player short, the spectacle was hardly ruined. They displayed an almost Springbok-esque backs to the wall determination to fight back, and really made Ireland work for their victory. But that’s beside the point. What will really ruin the spectacle of the game we love is if players continue to have to retire in their twenties due to repeated concussions, or if younger players (or their parents) become too afraid to even take up the game to begin with because of the potential life altering consequences of brain injuries. What will we be left with then?

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