When is it a Red Card and When is it a Yellow?

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The controversies around a yellow and a red card often make headlines and it is often not officiated correctly in the heat of the moment. 

There are however clear rules from World Rugby on how this should be applied and this is something I feel there should be a little more time spent on during matches. 

With a yellow card, I think the decision can be taken a bit quicker and on the spot but with all red cards there should be careful consideration. The new way in which yellow cards are referred to the TMOs for consideration of upgrading to a red card is a step in the right direction. 

It is however sometimes a little difficult to understand why certain cards are issued and we will have a quick look at both of them. There are some mitigating factors that might come into play but we aren’t going to try and touch on all of them. 

The yellow cards are the easier ones to adjudicate for the most part. Players get issued yellow cards in the following situations: 

  1. A professional foul – when there is a clear opportunity for a team to score a try and they are stopped by someone performing an illegal action. That can be pulling down an advancing maul, going blatantly offside, or slowing down the ball.
  2. Repeated infringements – this usually starts with the referee warning a team after they have conceded penalties for the same reason in short succession. 
  3. The tackle situations are a little more difficult:
    1. High tackle – if the tackle starts high around a player’s neck, it should be a yellow card. Sometimes a player starts lower and their arms slide up and that usually only ends up being a penalty, but there are exceptions.
    2. Contact with the head – when there is contact with another player’s head, then it should be an automatic yellow card. This is the exception we spoke about. If it is dangerous, then it should be a red card.
    3. Neckroll – not strictly a tackle but similar. In a ruck when a player is jackling over the ball an opposing player can move them off the ball on their shoulders or arms. Sometimes the defending players wrap their arms around a player’s neck and twist them out of the ruck with a neck roll. This should always be an instant yellow.
    4. Taking out a player in the air – if a player is taken out in the air, either in a lineout or from a kick it can result in a yellow card. That is if the player is not brought down safely to the ground. If the player goes past the horizontal and lands on their neck or head, it can be upgraded to a red card.

Red cards are just the stricter application of these laws in many instances and it usually gets applied depending on the severity of the incident. 

The blatant incidents of foul play get the red cards as they should. 

When there is a punch thrown or there is reckless contact with an opposing player’s head, then the red should always come out. 

If a player is taken out in the air and the other player doesn’t come down safely, it often results in a red. Especially if the other player didn’t really have a chance to realistically compete for the ball. This is applied mostly to kicks but I would like to see this happen as often in lineouts as well if a player gets pulled down. 

Another obvious red card is issued when a player receives two yellow cards in a match, but there are indeed gray areas in applying this rule.  

One instance occurs in the tackle situation when match officials try to judge the intent while taking mitigating circumstances into consideration. A clearer red card is where a player doesn’t use their arms, as was the case in the most recent controversial Owen Farrel tackle. There was no noticeable effort to wrap his arms around the other player and he tackled with an upward motion. He has been playing rugby for many years and knows the proper tackling techniques. His actions were appropriately dealt with by the match officials. 

The more difficult calls come often come down to unfortunate timing or a simple misjudgment. The most recent incident involving Tom Curry stands out as a prime example where changing the call from a yellow to a red card was considered a bit harsh by many. The player was coming down after jumping from the ball and Curry had no intent, in my opinion, to put in an illegal tackle. It was strictly judged according to the law with no mitigating circumstances and a clear collision of heads. 

There will still be many such problematic situations for the officials to deal with over the next few weeks and there will be a spotlight on all calls throughout the tournament. I hope they get the vast majority of it right though and that it doesn’t negatively influence the outcome of games.