England’s Red Roses rugby union team duly came off second best against New Zealand’s Black Ferns yesterday by a score margin of 31 to 34 in the 2021 Women’s Rugby World Cup final played at Eden Park in front of over 40,000 spectators, thereby concluding their 30-match winning streak against all-comers [and, for the avoidance of doubt, “2021 Women’s Rugby World Cup” is not a Rust typo, but the official title of a tournament that had been postponed from last year].
Purely from the viewpoint of this bleary-eyed watcher of ITV’s live coverage of this thrilling match, sipping tea upon my sofa and consuming a “toast and poached eggs” after having been woken by my alarm clock at 5.30am, it was a magnificent occasion and a milestone for the global reach of women’s rugby, billed (as it was) as a collision between the stream-roller power of England’s pack and the more expansive all-court game of the home squad.
As with many great rugby contests and occasions – and allowing for the inevitable periods of particular domination by one side or the other – for at least half its duration it seemed that the outcome was ‘in the balance’ for either team to grab.
One could have made a plausible argument that neither deserved to lose. And yet someone had to.
For the Red Roses, defeat was a huge disappointment after all the preparation and hard work that Simon Middleton’s staff and squad had put in over the past five years – and it signalled the end of an era for this particular player group, a sizeable proportion of which will have retired before the next Women’s Rugby World Cup.
I’m not into making excuses because on the day “what happened, happened”, but the only aspect of the game that disappointed – and indeed probably decided the outcome – was the 18th minute sending off of England wing threequarter Lydia Thompson for her “head on head” clash in tackling Kiwi Portia Woodman.
I accept that, within the current rules and protocols of rugby union, Scottish referee Hollie Davidson and her TMO officials could not be faulted for having made their decisions that the “head on head” was a fact, the tackle had been reckless and that there had been no mitigating factor – and therefore the red card was inevitable.
Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the sending off was unfortunate in that it materially affected the result of the contest.
Rugby is a fast-moving physical contact game in which every player on the pitch to has make intense and instant decisions every time they come close to the ball. With the best will in the world, from time to time every one of them will make such a decision, or indeed intervention in play, in a manner which technically offends against the rules.
However – for a team to go a player down after only 18 minutes means that his/her team will have to play the next 62 minutes (and any overtime) “up against the odds”. The very real possibility therefore arises that “the spectacle of the occasion” will be significantly reduced because “14 against 15” is – by definition – an unequal contest.
For me, this state of affairs in rugby union is a weakness.
Let’s take a couple of hypothetical examples.
Had Lydia Thompson made her intervention in the first minute of the game, England would have had to play 79 minutes “one player down”.
Yet, had she made it in the 79th minute, the Red Roses would have had to play “one player down” for just one minute.
Is that really logical?
It seems to me that rugby union should try a different approach simply in order to prevent a “sending off” destroying any game in which it is imposed.
Why not render any “head on head” collision – irrespective of intent, recklessness or even outcome (in terms of whether the “victim” of the collision is unharmed, has to go off for a head injury assessment, or even has to leave the field permanently) – punishable by an immediate automatic award of 10 points to the victim’s team.
This wouldn’t affect the spectacle of the game in the way that a sending off is liable to do.
Plus, the players knowing that a reckless “impact” upon an opposition player may result in their team shipping 10 points – and thereby mean the difference between winning and losing – will make them think hard before risking such a move/tackle, especially in the final minutes of a tight match.
I just thought I’d “fly this kite” this morning. Comments please by postcard to the usual address …