Rugby’s 15 v 14 dilemma

Herman Mostert
Herman Mostert

The past few months’ rugby action highlighted the importance for teams to keep 15 players on the park at all times.

Yellow and red cards have become customary in modern rugby, with at least one sin-binning per game seemingly the norm nowadays.

For me, the fact that it has become ‘customary’ is worrisome and the question should be asked whether players realise how costly a one-man disadvantage can prove.

Even if only for a 10-minute period.

It’s fair to assume that the outcome of June’s Test series between the All Blacks and the British and Irish Lions was influenced by Sonny Bill Williams’ red card in the second Test.

The All Blacks were forced to play with 14 men for almost 60 minutes and it eventually took its toll as the less-favoured tourists sneaked a 24-21 win.

During last month’s Super Rugby playoff series, the effects of playing a man down also played a significant part in the outcome of matches.

During their quarter-final against the Lions in Johannesburg, the Sharks lost lock Stephan Lewies for 10 minutes early in the second half.

The yellow card proved costly as the Durbanites saw a 14-3 advantage shrink to one point following two Lions tries.

Even worse, it swung the momentum of the match, with the Sharks’ tournament in ruins not long thereafter.

A week later in the semi-finals, Hurricanes flyhalf Beauden Barrett’s yellow card proved game-changing - with the Lions scoring 17 unanswered points during his absence.

The weekend after that, a card - this time red - impacted the outcome of the final as Kwagga Smith was sent off shortly before half-time for taking a player out in the air.

It left the 14-man Lions with too much to do.

Following Super Rugby, this "trend" has continued into the early weeks of the Currie Cup.

Two yellow cards upended Western Province in their loss to Griquas in Kimberley last Wednesday, while during their 45-34 win over the Blue Bulls at Newlands this past weekend their momentum was again halted.

The Cape side led 42-13, but a yellow card just prior to the break issued to centre EW Viljoen disrupted their momentum.

The Bulls came out storming in the second period and WP could never wrestle back control. Replacement lock Michael Kumbirai also copped a yellow card for a cynical infringement late in the game and at the end the hosts had to fend for their lives to keep the Bulls at bay.

WP coach John Dobson admitted that Viljoen’s yellow card had proved disruptive.

"We weren't planning on defending the lead. The problem is we started the (second) half with 14 (players) against a team we knew was going to run absolutely everything. EW is one of the best defenders at 13 and we tried our best, but they scored a try early and we were under pressure from then on," Dobson said in the post-match press conference.

Later on Saturday evening, the game at Ellis Park was turned on its head when Lions hooker Robbie Coetzee received his marching orders in the 51st minute for kicking Sharks flank Jacques Vermeulen in the face, just as the latter touched down to score.

The Lions had enjoyed a handsome 31-5 lead, but were blown away in the last half hour playing a man down.

One thing has become clear: More than ever before teams are finding the going tough being a player short.

It’s an issue that needs to be addressed.

It’s welcoming to hear Dobson speak about how disruptive his team’s yellow cards have proved, but do the players realise the importance of their actions?

Do they realise that even a 31-5 advantage can still be derailed by a silly indiscretion?

Coetzee escaped unscathed in his disciplinary hearing as his actions were deemed “entirely accidental with no intention of kicking his opponent”.

His coach was also quick to defend him afterwards, but no questions were asked why Coetzee was attempting a kick in the first place. It’s illegal to kick the ball out of a player’s hands, so in my book he had no business doing what he did.

Had Coetzee managed to do as intended, he would have conceded a penalty try and in all likelihood have copped a yellow card at best.

This is the same player who was banned for five weeks earlier in the season for kneeing a Southern Kings player in the face.

Yes, it’s a contact sport and accidents like some of the above-mentioned scenarios are bound to occur, but the importance of players’ on-field actions and decisions need to be highlighted.

Following the Super Rugby final, there was intense debate regarding red cards spoiling the spectacle.

Personally, I like the idea of sending a red-carded player off for 10 minutes, and then replacing him with a reserve for the remainder of the match.

It is however tough to envisage the modern game functioning without the yellow card sanction.

It has become part and parcel of the game, but I can’t help but wonder whether enough emphasis is being placed on its importance...

Herman Mostert works at Sport24, is a struggling golfer and enjoys tennis...

Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.

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