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The travails of the sport of Rugby Union

Regular readers will be fully aware of the Rust’s somewhat idiosyncratic approach to editorial matters which is why today I make no apology for returning to the subject of the current state of the sport of rugby union generally – and specifically some of the “take aways” from the recently-completed men’s Six Nations tournament – in offering the following observations and comments.

There is general agreement amongst sportswriters and rugby fans that the standard of play and entertainment in the 2023 Six Nations was of the highest order.

Even Italy, now under Kiwi head coach Kieran Crowley, performed creditably which was a long overdue surprise given that they’ve won only 11 Six Nations games in their twenty-three seasons since joining the competition in 2000 (their surprise 22-21 victory over Wales in 2022 was their first in seven years).

De facto the sport of rugby union is under great pressure, not least under the heading of “health and safety”. No player worth his or her salt sets out expecting to have a long career at any level of the game – the average longevity of a Premiership player is less than three and a half seasons – and recently the evidence a direct relationship between repeated blows to the head resulting in episodes of concussion and eventually activity-induced brain damage leading to the onset of dementia has become inescapable.

Never mind the sport’s acceptance of the link, the steps so far implemented designed to minimise and/or eradicate the obvious dangers have been faltering and somewhat cack-handed and the poor saps left in the spotlight to deal with on-pitch instances (the referees, the assistant referees touch-judging and, of course, those in the video trucks) have been suspended in a no-win situation.

Let’s face it, in rugby union – more than most sports – being yellow-carded (and removed from the field of play for ten minutes) or, worse, red-carded (permanently removed from the field of play) are likely to materially affect the outcome of a match and – in the process – potentially “kill it” as a live spectacle.

Yes, sometimes poor behaviour on the field requires that a team receive a “penalty” of some sort – but in my view (in terms of the impact of those watching it at the ground and/or on television from afar, having paid good money in either case for the privilege) – reducing one side by a player for ten minutes, still less permanently, renders what follows an uneven (and to some extent) unfair contest.

The Freddie Steward “sending off” incident in the Ireland v England game on Saturday afternoon  – in which he “came together” with Ireland’s Hugo Keenan, in a tussle for the ball won by the latter – has highlighted the problems that the sport has got itself into.

Like millions of others, I watched ITV’s television coverage and the studio discussions that followed. Little about the incident and its fall-out was crystal clear.

The officials had been instructed that the new “laws” required all players coming together to take personal responsibility for each other’s safety and that “contact with the head/shoulder” was an automatic yellow card offence in any event, with the context and intent of the collision (insofar as these could be deemed to apply) potentially amounting to “mitigation” that could allow the referee to stick to a yellow card.

However, in the absence of either of sufficient quality, an automatic red card was the appropriate punishment.

And thus Steward was soon trudging to the substitutes bench. At half-time debate raged in the studio set high up in the stands of the Aviva Stadium. Three presenters/pundits viewed the red card as disappointing but probably inevitable given the new laws and the video evidence. Irish legend Brian O’Driscoll regarded it as simply inevitable – an instance of the laws being applied to the letter. Only Sir Clive Woodward dissented. He was adamant that the Steward incident was just a unremarkable (normal) “rugby incident” that could have happened in any game at ay level and barely warranted even a yellow card, let alone a red.

For what it’s worth, on the day I agreed with O’Driscoll.

Now we learn that yesterday – at the resulting official disciplinary meeting – the red card awarded to Steward has been rescinded (apparently he should only have been given a yellow) and therefore he will not serve a ban.

I think this outcome is both ridiculous and unfortunate. Not because the incident concerned affected the outcome of the match, which any red card would, but because the rugby authorities (in their wisdom and by their decision) have at a stroke completely undermined the status and authority of the on-pitch official on the day, in this case the South Africa referee Jaco Peyper.

From my viewpoint, the rugby authorities have now made it highly unlikely in the future  that any rugby referee faced with a similar decision to make will ever issue a red card, no matter the context or degree of intent involved in such an incident.


Because the authorities have made it plain that avoiding impacting a rugby game as a spectacle and/or contest by issuing a red card is to be avoided if it possibly can be.

Rugby union has just taken a step backwards as regards protecting the health and safety of its players as a result – a hasty decision that may come back to bite them in the behind one day.






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About Miles Piper

After university, Miles Piper began his career on a local newspaper in Wolverhampton and has since worked for a number of national newspapers and magazines. He has also worked as a guest presenter on Classic FM. He was a founder-member of the National Rust board. More Posts