White card signals just more red tape in Super Rugby

This year Super Rugby agreed to try out a white-card system in an attempt to make the punishment fit the crime. Simply put, a white card is called by the on-field referee when he and his fellow officials smell a rat but do not have time to stop the game and open a box of Rattex.

The white card was intended to standardise the punishment of players in an environment that had become too subjective.

Players such as Bakkies Botha and Butch James appeared to get the rough end of the pineapple because of their reputations, whereas their counterparts in New Zealand and Australia seemed to get the benefit of the doubt more regularly.
At least, that is how it seemed to South African fans, although fans in the antipodes might have felt differently.

Along the way, the citing commissioner had been invested with a power and mystique that outweighed his usefulness—the law of unintended consequences had reared its head once again and the white card was intended to solve the problem.

But just as the television match official disempowered touch judges, so the white card allows everyone to dodge the task at hand.

Take the tip tackle as an example. Francois Hougaard sat out the Bulls defeat to the Blues because he was banned for a week after a white-card review. He had been red-carded by referee Craig Joubert in Bloemfontein, but Joubert’s decision to issue a white card as well indicated that he was not certain whether an early bath was sufficient punishment.

A week earlier, Mark Lawrence gave a yellow card to the Cheetahs’s Andries Strauss for a tip tackle. He, too, was unsure how heinous the crime had been and also issued a white card. On review, Strauss got two weeks to Hougaard’s one.

Muddied water
Critics have argued about which referee was correct but the fact is that on each occasion the white card muddied the water rather clarified it.

The intended purpose is to clean up the game by correctly identifying the crime, the perpetrator and the severity of punishment. The unintended consequence is to stop referees from trusting their instincts. A job made difficult by the many law changes every year is made almost impossible when the white card offers an escape clause.

Rugby union is not like other sports. What would be described as social engineering in government policy is what sets it apart. Generations of well-meaning committees have sought to alter laws in an attempt to make the game more attractive.

The pioneers recognised that burying the ball under a pile of bodies for protracted periods of time was not a good way to grow either an audience or a player base, so they sought subtle ways to open up the contest.

An early bête noir was the kick. William Webb Ellis became famous for running with the ball, but the principal scoring method was the kick. The try itself was originally just a means to an end, allowing the kicker to “try at goal”.

So, over the years, the drop goal has been reduced from four points to three and there are moves afoot to make it worth just two. The territory-gaining direct kick into touch is now allowed only from inside the 22 or from a penalty and catching a ball cleanly from a kick empowers the catcher in the eyes of the law. And yet, people still kick the leather off the ball as often as possible.

So the wheel turns
Hands in the ruck were slowing the game down, so the lawmakers banned them. Now the wheel has come full circle and many advocate hands as the best way to get the game going again after a tackle.

Lifting in the line-outs was once anathema but, when “support at the top of the jump” came in, the theatrical aspect of the contest became evident and we all wondered why lifting had ever been banned in the first place.

This constant tinkering has good and bad side effects and it is early in the tale of the white card to be equivocal.

South Africa, New Zealand and Australia Rugby chief executive Greg Peters said they had been encouraged by how referees had used it in the first three rounds of Super Rugby. “I believe how it has been used has been good and I don’t think to date we’ve seen referees abrogate their responsibility to deal with foul play,” Peters said.

“If that was the case, we’ve got a mechanism, under the referee review system, where we can tell the referee [that], if they keep doing that, they won’t get appointments.”

This would be all well and good if there was a bottomless pit of competent referees to replace the miscreants, but there is not. It is significant that Lions coach John Mitchell backed the referee but criticised his support staff following last week’s defeat to the Sharks.

There are too many officials in the decision-making chain and the white-card system is just another example of how more bureaucracy can bring less efficiency.

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