A rugby league style “on report” system is being trialled by SANZAR for this year’s Super XV. One of the reasons given for the changes is the rather questionable goal of making life easier for referees on the field. The more sensible and, one would hope, primary objective is to achieve greater fairness and consistency in the treatment of foul play. A referee will be able to place a player “on report” if he suspects foul play or if a player makes an allegation against an opponent which the referee feels warrants investigation by the judiciary.
If the new system had been in use during RWC, Sam Warburton would still have received his red card during the semi final, as Alain Rolland was in no doubt about the offence.
However, its proper use might have had a material effect when Paul Williams was wrongly sent off for Samoa against S Africa. Springbok flanker Heinrich Brussow conned referee Nigel Owen into thinking he had been felled by a Williams punch. In that instance, Williams might have received a yellow card and been put on review for the judicial committee to make a ruling.
The use of the report system in Dublin on Sunday would have changed little in terms of the outcome of the game or the ruling by the judiciary on Wednesday. Wayne Barnes did not see the Bradley Davies tip tackle on Donnacha Ryan and was guided by touch judge Dave Pearson in issuing a yellow card. It would have been logical in those circumstances for Davies to be placed on report and one assumes the ban would have been the same. In the case of Stephen Ferris, Barnes saw the incident and deemed a yellow card as being appropriate, and the judiciary accepted that Ferris did not require any further punishment.
It is hoped that referees and touch judges in the Super XV do not use the new system to shy away from using red cards if required. The IRB is trying to rid the game of tip tackles and Davies acted in a dangerous and premeditated fashion. What is concerning, is how touch judge Pearson, who has taken charge of 25 test matches, could recommend a yellow card for what was clearly a red card offence.
The SANZAR goal of fairness and consistency in the treatment of foul play by the judiciary is laudable. The unwillingness of some match officials to make tough decisions however, is a cause for concern. Officials must be brave enough to make unpopular calls when required. In rugby history referees have felt unsupported by the authorities after sending off a player. Would Alain Rolland have been given the World Cup final if he had not sent off Warburton? Red cards mean controversy and the IRB hates public controversy. Until they give referees proper support, officials like Pearson will continue to fear the ultimate sanction.