PRL chief executive Mark McCafferty answers YOUR Heineken Cup questions*

Desperate Rugby is delighted to welcome Mark McCafferty, chief executive of English Premiership Rugby, to these pages to answer your email questions*

Desperate Rugby: Mark, thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions

Mark McCafferty: Hey, my pleasure, let’s get this show on the road.

Why did PRL decide to opt out of the Heineken Cup? Andy, Hawick

MM: Andy, hi, thanks for your question. Why did PRL decide to opt out of the Heineken Cup? Well let’s look at the vista, or landscape if you prefer, which faced us when we sat down to talk about the future of European club rugby last summer. We had a tournament which had caught the imagination of just about every rugby fan in Europe since its creation. It had acted as a gateway to the game for millions of sport-loving television viewers around Europe who were switched on to rugby for the first time. Attendances at grounds had grown exponentially. Millions of euros were flowing back into the participating countries at an ever increasing rate. It was widely regarded as the single most successful initiative of the professional rugby era.

So things had to change. And change radically. We just couldn’t go on like that.

Was it a difficult decision to pull out of the Heineken Cup? Tommo, Aberdeen

It was Tommo. It really was. But there was a single defining moment when I realised that we had to change things for the good of the game. And that single defining moment was the moment when I realised BT Sport really were offering us a shitload of money. And when I say shitload, I mean shitload. Just a huge shitload of money. That was a very special moment for me and I’ll never forget it.

What exactly are BTSport offering to participants in a new European Cup? Jan, Glasgow

The BT deal is what we who are in the business of professional sport administration call “dead good”. It will allow everyone to be all they can be. It will change lives. It will alter the way we think about humanity. More than one person who has been involved in setting up the deal has told me that it has restored their faith in humanity. And not in a wishy-washy, touchy-feely, mumbo-jumbo way. In a deep, true and lasting way. I know this for a fact Jan. One club chief executive, to give you one example off the top of my head, has started helping out at a soup kitchen. And that’s all down the magic of the BT Sport deal.

But, financially, what will the deal be for Scottish outfits like Glasgow? Jan, Glasgow

That’s a secret. But not in a sinister, ‘we’ll-only-tell-you-what-you’re-getting-once-we’ve-got-you-by-the-knackers’ way. It’s more like the way the best Christmas present is a secret. Imagine a sweet, innocent little child tucked up in bed on Christmas Eve, full of hope and and wonder and expectation at the thought of all the fabulous goodies Father Christmas is going to bring. And on Christmas morning, hey presto! Santa’s been and it’s such a great feeling.

That’s how we feel about our new European rugby product. Our new tournament is like Christmas itself; teams like Glasgow are the giddy little children and PRL is Santa Claus doling out all kinds of goodies with a smile on our face and a song in our heart. If I’m honest, one of the most dispiriting aspects of this whole controversy has been finding out how many people in the upper echelons of European rugby no longer believe in Santa Claus. But we can bring the magic back, Jan, we can bring the magic back. So why don’t you just piss off and leave the worrying about where the money’s coming from to us grown ups, eh?

If PRL and the French clubs can’t convince the Celts and Italians to join their new venture, will you look at other options for participation? Bill, Livingston


Well we really hope that won’t be the case. Truly we do. But if it is the case we have plans in place. Amazing, exciting plans which will change the way everyone thinks about rugby.  Clubs all round the world have shown an interest. We’ve been speaking to representatives of the NFL in America and they’ve been really excited about what we have to say. It’s not beyond the realms of our thinking that there could be a special edition of the X Factor which is based solely around the quarter final stages of our European rugby tournament. Just imagine how awesome it would be to see Gary Barlow, Sharon Osbourne and the other judges I don’t know acting as guest TMOs for those special games. It’d knock peoples’ socks off.

Do you honestly see any way out of this mess in time for next season’s Heineken Cup? Simon, Edinburgh

Well, Simon, I have to tell you that there won’t be a Heineken Cup next season. Let me put it to you this way. When someone dies and goes to heaven, we mere mortals can’t imagine just how wonderful it is for them up there. Because we’ve never been to heaven and we won’t know what it’s like until we get there. And that’s how it is for a lot of people in this current situation. We have to wait for the Heineken Cup to die before we can have our own little slice of heaven in the future.

DR: Mark, that’s all we’ve got time for, thanks for answering our questions.

MM: My pleasure

* Quite obviously this isn’t the real Mark McCafferty – please don’t go telling anyone that it is.


Resurgent Scots should remember Pacific friends

This blog owes Andy Robinson, Ross Ford and the Scottish rugby team an apology. Before the Scotland squad headed out on its Southern Hemisphere tour, Desperate Rugby believed – and we may well have shared this view with others – that our national side would do well to win any matches and that by the time New Zealand arrive at Murrayfield in the autumn we’d be neck-deep in a 10 game losing streak.

Sometimes it’s nice to be wrong.

This being Scotland, of course, many in our number have already embarked on a ‘success-limitation’ excercise and trotted out all sorts of excuses for our victories… Australia had their minds on the Wales game, Fiji were under-strength, it won’t count ’til we do it in the Six Nations etc. etc.

So what? It’s test rugby and a win is a win is a win.

Scotland’s Pacific tour is markedly less high profile than Wales in Australia, Ireland in New Zealand and England in South Africa. And so it should be. The other teams have earned the spotlight by outperforming us in recent years.

Like it or not, when it comes to top grade international rugby we are on the outside looking in at the moment and only consistent success against high-ranking opposition will change that.

But all things must pass. Ireland, Wales and England have had their troubles in the not too distant past. Scotland’s time will come again – and soon, please God – but when it does hopefully we’ll have learned something from our current status as also-rans.

The Fiji leg of this Scotland tour has felt like a throwback to a distant age. Scotland have attended presentations and ceremonies in Fiji (the videos of these visits are great and you can see them on YouTube) and Saturday’s impromptu inter-team huddle after the final whistle was clear proof that rugby can still unite people from wildly different cultures through a shared love of the game.

There’s an obvious joke about Glasgow and Edinburgh in that last sentence but this blog is going to strive for higher things.

One thing that’s achingly clear is that it has meant a lot to Fijians to have what they consider to be a ‘big’ team come to their country on tour. Scotland have made all sorts of friends this summer and hopefully they’ll make a few more in Samoa.

Scottish rugby will recover some of it’s lustre at some point. And when it does, one hopes the SRU will remember the people who made our boys feel like kings when our game was at its lowest ebb.

Why Glasgow Warriors should sign Gavin Henson

Glasgow Warriors should sign Gavin Henson. There, I’ve said it.

The idea that a Scottish club should invest any of their meagre resources in the Welsh ice cube chucker may seem like madness but before you write me off as a complete buffoon, consider the following…

1 – Glasgow need his type of player
This Warriors back division has a great deal going for it. We’re seeing exciting youngsters like Alex Dunbar, Duncan Weir, Henry Pyrgos and – especially – Stuart Hogg show massive potential. Old hands like Chris Cusiterand the Lamont brothers still have a lot to offer and players like Peter Murchie, Tommy Seymour and Troy Nathan are developing into the kind of stalwarts that every club needs.  What Glasgow doesn’t have is a second five-eighth in the All Black mould. Imagine Henson at 12, outside either Duncan Weir or Ruraidh Jackson. His ability to create space for himself and others would compliment Weir, his big boot and tackling ability would compliment Jackson. Either way he’s got plenty to offer.

2 – He’d be cheap
Over the last couple of years, Henson hasn’t so much burned his bridges as ordered a bomber squadron to napalm all bridges on sight before ordering a trade embargo on all materials associated with bridge-building. He’s played pro rugby for Ospreys, Saracens, Toulon and Cardiff and none of them would give him much of  a reference. Henson has only started 12 games since 2009, so although he’s nudging past 30, there aren’t many miles on the clock. It’s a buyer’s market when it comes to investing in Gavin Henson and the price of any deal would reflect that.

3 – He’d be anonymous 
Let’s face it – Glasgow is not a rugby city. Richie McCaw and Dan Carter could ride Shergar down Sauchiehall Street and it would barely raise an eyebrow. Henson could rehabilitate his career away from the prying eyes of the Welsh and English media. It’d be the perfect environment for him to shake off all the extraneous rubbish and focus on his rugby.

4 – He loves the city’s nightlife
Kidding. Just kidding.

5 – He’s desperate
Gav knows he’s drinking in the last chance saloon (metaphorically, hopefully).  He has only one more crack at professional rugby and all the nonsense has to stop. From Henson’s point of view, Glasgow are a good fit. They are guaranteed entry to the Heineken Cup, competitive in the Pro12 league and play a style of rugby that would suit his game. There also aren’t any out-sized egos to content with – apart form his own, obviously.

6 – Because, in spite of all the nonsense, Gavin Henson is an outstanding player
Hand on heart, how many world class players do Glasgow Warriors have? Henson is a world class player, capable of winning matches with a flash of genius. If he had the mindset of someone like Chris Paterson he’d be a superstar of the world game and well out of Glasgow’s league. But he doesn’t and, therefore, he isn’t. Bringing him in would be a big gamble and if it didn’t pay off there would be no shortage of smart arses on hand with a helpful ‘I told you so’. But sometimes you have to gamble. Financially Glasgow just can’t compete for the world’s best players unless they come with some kind of flaw. Henson’s not short of flaws, but he’s not short of talent either.

So there you have it, six reasons why Glasgow Warriors should sign Gavin Henson.   What could possibly go wrong???

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The unsung hero who has given Gunners ammo

When the time comes to analyse Edinburgh rugby’s fantastic run to the Heineken Cup semi-finals, several critical moments are likely to attract attention.

Greig Laidlaw’s conversion which sealed the jaw-dropping comeback against Racing Metro, Lee Jones’s last-minute bonus point try against London Irish which secured a home quarter final and David Denton’s storming score in Paris all spring to mind.

Let’s hope time is also taken to reflect on a key encounter in the first Cup tie, away to London Irish, which showed that this Edinburgh unit was capable of doing things that no Scottish side had done before.

The moment came midway through the first half when relative newcomer Sean Cox replaced the injured Denton from the bench. Denton had been left concussed by a monstrous (illegal) hit from Shontayne Hape and Cox, as he entered the fray, made it clear to the England centre that his card was well and truly marked. That moment changed the course of the match and Edinburgh’s season.

The pair spend the most of the rest of the match sparring, niggling and generally getting under each other’s skin to the point where Hape gave away a stupid penalty, got himself sin-binned and gave Laidlaw a chance to kick the match-winning penalty, which he duly did.

An illegal forearm smash, dished out to Hape in retribution for Denton’s treatment, earned Cox a one match ban from the citing commissioner after the game. On the record, Michael Bradley criticised his middle row’s actions, but privately it would be no surprise if the coach was more than a little thrilled to see a player emerge who was willing to enforce the law of the jungle.

There had long been the feeling, prior to this season, that Edinburgh had a lot to offer in terms of open, attacking rugby but were sometimes found wanting when the squeeze came on. Or, in the words of the late GHK coach Brian Gilbert: “When the going gets tough, our boys go skiing”.

This side – Bradley’s side – is different and this change is attributable in no small measure to the arrival of Cox, an unheralded summer signing from Sale Sharks. Ironically, his departure from Manchester coincided with the arrival at Edgeley Park of Edinburgh prospect Fraser McKenzie.

It remains to be seen which club will get the better end of that exchange but the Englishman has added fibre to a talented Gunners pack. His contribution against Toulouse, unshowy but effective, was typical. In the tense closing minutes, in particular, Cox’s willingness to hit rucks and wrap up tackles was invaluable.

Like most Edinburgh player this season, there’s been a disparity between Cox’s Heineken form and his performances in the Pro12 league but if he can find a bit more consistency he has the potential to become a player of rare value.

Genuine enforcers don’t grow on trees and the country of his birth isn’t exactly overflowing with middle row talent at the moment. If England don’t come calling, however, there are other options. Should Cox see out his current deal at Murrayfield, he’ll have fulfilled the three-year residency qualification for international rugby. There’s a lot of ifs, buts and maybes between now and then but there are grounds to believe that the Lancastrian could work the same magic on Scotland as he has at Edinburgh – injecting some steel to an underachieving side.

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Scotland’s Six Nations referees rated

This blog has always fancied itself as a bit of an expert in refereeing. For many years now, whistlers the length and breadth of Scotland and England have enjoyed the benefit of Desperate Rugby’s sage advice on all manner of matters.

Who better to assess each of the referees involved in Scotland’s Six Nations matches? Who indeed…

George Clancy (vs England)
There is a feeling among some, if not all, Scotland supporters that George Clancy is no friend to the men in blue. This feeling has been formed over years of watching him officiate the national team and club sides. The match against England at Murrayfield offered a few more choice entries to the Clancy files. In particular, his decision not to call play back for a penalty in front of the posts after Laidlaw’s chip and chase had gone to the video ref seemed inexplicable until you remembered two things – this was George Clancy; and he was refereeing a Scotland match. … 4/10

Romain Poite (vs Wales)
A decent all-round game by the Frenchman was marred by one serious howler which fans of all lesser rugby sides (and sorry, folks, that includes Scotland now) are all-too familiar with. Poite ruled Stuart Hogg had failed to cleanly collect Nick de Luca’s pitiful loose pass and had knocked on before scoring. In fact, Hogg had shown remarkable skill to keep the ball in hand and dive over. Ask yourself this: if Hogg had been Sonny Bill Williams and it had been the All Blacks, not Scotland, would he have sent it upstairs to video ref? ‘Course he would. … 6/10

Wayne Barnes (vs France)
Sometimes it’s wrong to be too harsh on international referees. We mere fans have no idea which interpretation of the laws they’ve been asked to apply by their IRB overlords on any given day. That said, the IRB probably look for referees to apply the laws evenly to both sides and there’s something gauling about seeing a Scotland player penalised for coming into a ruck from the side when the ref’s stood and watched several Frenchmen do exactly the same thing. … 6/10

Chris Pollock (vs Ireland)
Easily the best referee Scotland came across this championship. The New Zealander was decisive and showed authority without coming across like a shrill headmaster (see next entry). Struggled to control the scrums but a referee can only do so much if both front rows are intent on cheating. Most of all, though, you got the feeling he actually likes rugby and was enjoying the experience. It showed. … 8/10

Alain Rolland (vs Italy)
Chris Pollock gave the impression he likes rugby. Alain Rolland, however, looked for all the world like a man who had far, far better things to do with his Saturday afternoon than ref some poxy rugby match. A friend of mine said it looked like he was miffed at being given the least glamorous assignment on ‘Super Saturday’ and, who knows? maybe his nose was put out of joint a bit. Whatever the reason he did his game to ruin a game which, frankly, didn’t really need his help ruining. Regular, endless lectures to both sets of teams, talking to grown men as if they were inmates at a borstal and several yellow cards flourished with just a pinch too much relish were all classic Rolland touches. … 2/10

Scotland Players’ Six Nations Report Cards


Geoff Cross: Got a bit of a schooling against the French front row but one of the few Scots to improve as the tournament progressed and justifiably earned selection ahead of Euan Murray for the Italy game. … 6/10

John Welsh: Drafted in against Italy as a last-minute replacement for the injured Jacobsen and more than held his own in the scrums. Deserves a shot. … 6/10

Allan Jacobsen: Struggled in scrums and gave away too many stupid penalties – couldn’t stop dipping his hands in to rucks. Couldn’t reproduce barnstorming club form in a Scotland jersey. … 5/10

Ed Kalman: Heart-warming rise to international rugby for the hard-working Glasgow man. Found the rigours of international rugby demanding before injury curtailed his campaign. … 5/10

Euan Murray: Has been living off his reputation for too long. Failed to make the impact that many expected and perhaps his time has passed. … 4/10


Ross Ford: Impressed against England, Wales and France but floundered in Ireland and couldn’t hit a barn door with this throwing against Italy. Burden of captaincy seemed to weigh heavily but still one of our better forwards. … 6/10

Scott Lawson: Poor sod. Barely got a sniff of a chance playing second fiddle to captain Ford. Should have got more game time against Italy when Ford started mis-firing. Dependable. … 5/10

Second Rows

Richie Gray: A return to form after lacklustre World Cup for the Glasgow Warrior. Fantastic try against Ireland was the Hollywood moment of an impressive tournament. Lineout work much improved but still some concerns over his lack of oomph in the scrum. … 8/10

Jim Hamilton: Started the Six Nations looking like a dark horse for Lions selection. Finished it looking like a cart horse in Rome. Sterling work in the tight, particularly in the first three matches – scrums and lineouts were far more reliable with Jim about. Sin-binning against Italy was dumb, dumb, dumb and costs him a mark. … 5/10.

Al Kellock: Found it hard to make an impact from the replacements’ bench and coughed up too many turnovers with the ball in hand. May find his involvement under threat from emerging talents such as Grant Gilchrist, Fraser McKenzie and Tim Swinson. … 5/10

Loose Forwards

Ross Rennie: Justified Andy Robinson’s belief in his abilities with a series of memorable displays. Heavily criticised for spurning a clear overlap against England but highly influential and a proper pest. Has made the number seven jersey his own. … 8/10

David Denton: Brilliant Six Nations debut against England and impressed throughout with his dynamic ball carrying. Form tailed off as the tournament progressed. Lingering suspicion that he finds tackling a bit of a chore sometimes. … 7/10

John Barclay: Difficult championship for Barclay. Playing out of position at six asked questions of him that he was physically ill-equipped to answer. Fact that he contributed so well speaks volumes for his work ethic and rugby nouse but he needs to regain a bit of spark. … 6/10

Al Strokosch: Didn’t stand out in the two starts he made before injury ended his involvement but you can’t help feeling his steel might have prevented some of the bullying Scotland suffered in later games. … 6/10

Half Backs

Mike Blair: Back to something like his best and was unfortunate with injury. Looked indecently sharp at times, particularly in the opening 20 minutes against the French, and service was less laboured than it has been. … 7/10

Greig Laidlaw: Made an impact when he came into the side but the limitations of his game as a stand-off were exposed as the tournament drew on. Showed enough to suggest he has a great deal to offer Scotland but may earn more caps with a 9 on his back rather than a 10. … 6/10

Duncan Weir: Had only a few minutes against France to show what he is capable of but the youngster looked composed and slotted his conversion of Lee Jones’s try with aplomb. Should get a run out on this summer’s Southern Hemisphere tour. … 6/10

Chris Cusiter: Didn’t reach top form and lost his starting place to Blair but Cusiter still impressed in patches with his guile and tenacity. Hands don’t seem as quick as they used to be and box-kicking wasn’t quite on the money. … 6/10

Ruraidh Jackson: Injury ruled him out of Scotland’s first three matches. Appearing from the bench behind a beaten pack is a thankless task for any stand off and Jackson was constantly on the back foot against Ireland and Italy. Got a real fight on his hands if he wants to stay ahead of Weir in the pecking order. … 5/10

Dan Parks: Dismal performance against England was a sorry way to end his Scotland career. Deserved better than to exit on such a low. … 4/10


Sean Lamont: Doesn’t have the hands to make it as a centre – and you get the feeling he knows it – but battled gamely and deserves credit for giving his all in a position he probably knows is not his best. Still a real threat with the ball in hand – pity he hardly got any in the right places. … 6/10

Graeme Morrison: Did exactly what was expected of him when he was brought back into the starting XV. Difficult to fault a man who always gives it everything he’s got but not the answer at inside centre. … 5/10

Nick de Luca: To get sin-binned once for a brainless offence is careless. To do it twice is downright unprofessional. Showed flashes of his Edinburgh form when he came on as a replacement against France but  two yellow cards at crucial moments were his biggest contributions to the Six Nations and they cost Scotland dear. … 3/10

Back three

Stuart Hogg: Looked the business when he stepped into the fray against Wales and followed up that performance with a try in his home debut against France. Found opportunities limited in subsequent matches but did enough to raise the hopes of all Scotland fans. … 8/10

Lee Jones: Had his best and worst moments against France when he finished well for his first international try and missed a tackle which allowed France to claim the decisive score. Doubts remain over his stature in comparison with today’s massive wingers but did enough to keep the jersey. … 6/10

Rory Lamont: Has any Scotland player been more unlucky with injuries? You could argue that the broken leg he suffered against France changed the whole tone of the Six Nations campaign. Scotland were never quite as threatening or assured once the younger Lamont was gone. … 6/10

Max Evans: Scotland’s chief attacking threat found opportunities limited and often ended up isolated as team-mates failed to anticipate his next move. Twenty four caps into his international career and Scotland have yet to find the most effective use of his undoubted talent. Still not even clear whether he’s seen as a wing or centre. … 6/10

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Clubs, not country, should come first after shambolic Six Nations

Well thank God that’s over. This is the third year in row when I’ve approached the Six Nations with something approaching confidence about Scotland’s chances. And the third year I’ve been wrong. As George W Bush might try to say: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me; fool me three times, I’m clearly a Scottish rugby fan.”

There are one or two positives to draw from Scotland’s Six nations – the main one being
that it’s finally over – but they have to be offset against the corrosive damage that another
year of underperforming has had on the game in Scotland. We’re facing the prospect of
another Lions tour with limited Scottish involvement and a really crappy seeding at the
next World Cup, thus missing out on the benefits of the two biggest events in the rugby firmament.

What’s particularly dispiriting is the downturn in performance game-by-game. The loss to
England was frustrating because we failed to capitalise on some great opportunities.
The loss to Italy was soul destroying because we didn’t look like creating anything. The
stats say Scotland won ball five times in the Italian 22. I honestly can’t remember a single
one of those five occasions.

Scottish rugby fans have endured some dire performances from our boys in recent years –
my own ‘favourite’ was the 46-22 bleaching by Wales at Murrayfield in 2005 – but this
year’s defeat in Rome really was the nadir and you can’t blame that all on the coaches. Too many players looked like they didn’t want to be there.

So where to we go from here? Before the Italy game, Desperate Rugby would have been
very much of the view that Andy Robinson should stay in charge at least until his new coaching team of Scott Johnson and Matt Taylor had been given a chance to bed in. Now, I
still think Robinson should stay for now, but only because it would be wrong to parachute another coach into the steaming mess he’s created.

Whatever happens, we’re looking at a fairly bleak landscape for the national team. Our
next five fixtures are Australia (away), Fiji (away), Samoa (away), New Zealand (home),
South Africa (home). By the time Scotland take on Tonga in the final autumn international,
we could be carrying a 0-13 losing streak with us. No coach in the world could survive that and the end of the autumn series may be the right time to blood a new leader.

The nightmare scenario is that Robinson is bulletted – or walks – and the job is given to
Johnson because he’s already on the payroll and has a CV that suggests he is in the neighbourhood of qualified. This would be a disaster. Johnson has an uncanny ability to, as my granny would put it, start a stooshie in an empty house. Whether he’s the source of the chaos or trouble just happens to find him doesn’t matter – Scottish rugby needs his kind of leadership like an otter needs swimming trunks. If Robinson goes, he has to go too. Taylor at least has some experience of Scottish rugby and doesn’t have the same baggage as Johnson, so he may have a part to play. Besides, can the SRU afford to pay all three off? Probably not.

So where do we go from here? My suggestion to the SRU – and they’re bound to be listening, obviously – is a radical shift in focus.

The advancement of the national XV has been the be-all and end-all of Scottish rugby since the game went professional. Whether that’s the right strategy or not, we have repeatedly proved incapable of achieving it. Let’s face it, we’re a third division national side now.

Bizarrely, however, our professional club sides are in a better place than ever before. More than 25,000 fans are going to turn up for Edinburgh’s home Heineken Cup quarter final against Toulouse, while Glasgow are attracting record crowds and in with a real shout of reaching the Pro-12 play-offs.

So let’s build on this momentum and give the pro teams their head. The interest in the Toulouse game shows that the fanbase is there if the offering is appealing enough. Let’s commit to proper investment, both in high profile signings and youth development, and set Glasgow and Edinburgh the target of matching the performance of Leinster and Munster, both in terms of achieving on the pitch and attracting supporters.  Widening the focus to clubs gives us a chance to bring in more commercial partners at a lower, less expensive level, and to engage more directly with the game’s grass roots.

And as for the national team, if the club sides are prospering then this should have a knock-on effect for Scotland. If not, then at least supporters will have big club games to look forward to.

It may take time and there are bound to be setbacks on the way but what we’re doing isn’t working. Einstein once said the definition of stupidity is repeating the same set of actions and expecting a different result.

It’s time to try something different.

It’s time to stop being stupid.

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Give red cards the, erm, red card

Showing a player a red card isn’t quite the same thing as causing a team to forfeit a match. Not quite … but pretty close. How many teams have won a test match once they’ve been reduced to 14 men? That’s not a rhetorical question, I’m genuinely asking, because I can’t be bothered spending hours on Google trying to find the answer.

I’m willing to wager a substantial sum that it’s not many. The attritional nature of the game makes it extraordinarily difficult for sides who are a man short to coordinate their defence for an extended period of time.

So when Alain Rolland sent off Sam Warburton in the 2011 RWC semi-final, he was essentially consigning Wales to defeat. The fact that they came within a narrowly-missed penalty kick of victory is indicative of just how shite France were.

The most common cause of a red card in test rugby is serious foul play; the ‘tip tackle’ which did for Warburton being an example. The referee had no choice but to send Warburton off. It was a dangerous act as the player – to his enormous credit – acknowledged after the match. But does the punishment really fit the crime? Rugby is a team game. Is it fair that one moment of stupidity or clumsiness or wanton violence by an individual player should put a full stop to the hopes and dreams of his team, their fans and, in Warburton’s case, an entire country?

No. It isn’t fair.

And before you ask, I do have a better idea.

My suggestion is this: When a player is red-carded he (or she) is barred from returning to the pitch in line with the current laws. But once an allotted time of punishment is up – say, 20 minutes – a replacement is permitted to join the match. This ensures that the ‘guilty’ team are still punished heavily; the player is given a stiff personal censure for his actions and the ‘guilty’ team are forced into a non-tactical substitution at a time which is unlikely to suit them. Still a serious punishment but not a game killer.

The current system worries me greatly. For one thing, it puts far too much pressure on referees who are duty-bound to apply the strictest letter of the law irrespective of the context of the match. Poor Rolland will probably never be able to walk the streets of Newport again. He must be gutted.

More worryingly, in my view however, is that such a draconian punishment in play creates an opportunity all sorts of unpalatable shenanigans.

What are the odds on a 14-man side winning a test match when the two teams are evenly matched? Very, very long I suspect. And the reverse is equally true. If a side as abysmal as France could hold off Wales for more than an hour at Eden Park, then any moderately talented professional XV should be able to do the same. The betting on this season’s Calcutta Cup fixture was pretty even. However, if someone was betting on one side with the sure knowledge that they’d be playing with an extra man for 60 minutes, they’d be confident of backing a winner.

Okay, match fixing in rugby may sound far-fetched. Please God let’s hope so. But, 20 years ago, who would’ve guessed that South Africa’s cricketers were throwing matches for money? Just because it’s unlikely doesn’t mean it’s inconceivable.

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About Desperate Rugby

I’m a rugby player. Not a very good one – too fat, too slow and too old – but a rugby player nonetheless. I play, when selected, for a small club in the lower reaches of the Caledonia Leagues. Sometimes for the seconds.

I used to be a professional writer – well a journalist, actually, which is almost the same thing – and I’ll be using Desperate Rugby to spout forth on anything I like, so long as it concerns the game I love.

If you stumble across this blog, feel free to join in. Or not. We’re very relaxed about that kind of thing at Desperate Rugby.