Sports

Red-carded ‘apprentices’ are harming their fellow players and the long-term viability of rugby union



Just out of school, I worked in a carpenter’s shop to learn a trade. I soon learned of tensions between the qualified carpenters in the shop and asked my mentor why one of their number was in Coventry.

“We get paid based on our qualifications. He’s got all the certificates. We don’t have all those certificates, but we have our experience. So he gets paid more than any of us. But look at his workmanship: you’ll see he doesn’t deserve the money.”

He showed me his colleague’s current work piece – a small table. Three of the tabletop’s sides were straight. On the fourth side he had started the cut and started the cut again at a slightly different angle, leaving a sawblade-wide step in the edge that needed to be sanded out. But he had completed planing and sanding. I could only agree that the work was not to professional standard.

Rugby too is a profession. We hear of players plying their trade at such-a-such a team and that a player is a journeyman or a master. In short, the players are expected to have the competencies to do their job correctly, it’s what they are paid for. Full-time trainers and coaches are employed to help the players achieve and maintain competence.

Du'Plessis Kirifi of the Hurricanes runs at Sam Cane of the Chiefs.

(Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Professional development is part of any profession or trade. Competence includes keeping your skills and knowledge up to date. For a carpenter, much of competence is using the tools correctly to get the right result. For a rugby player we can drill down a bit.

Competence includes the physical and mental capability and capacity to deliver at a high level while being physically and emotionally stretched. The professional rugby player must also know all the laws of the game and how to apply them, the techniques and the knacks that give you an edge on the field of play, and the etiquette and unspoken code of conduct that prevents players from doing hollywoods and otherwise being silly.

Also, there are the skills to execute tasks with accuracy at speed. To paraphrase one jargon-rich TV commenter, to execute accurately the rehearsed micro-skills of the skill set.

So it is surprising, indeed bizarre, to discover that when the judiciary review red cards, they require that players receive training in how to tackle.

In May 2019, World Rugby announced new tackling protocols to prevent concussion. Almost three years later, the requirement for further training reveals some players still haven’t read the memo and are not yet fully competent at a basic requirement of their profession.

There is a common word for someone who is learning on the job. It is apprentice.

Red cards are intended to stop unwanted behaviour. They announce that the player’s technique is substandard and not consistently that of a professional. This message is losing its power and effectiveness.

(Photo by Soccrates/Getty Images)

The reasons include white-anting by commentators, players who regard cards as an occupational hazard, a judiciary where the lawyers before it are concerned only about getting their client back onto the field of play, media interests who foment controversy (it equals clicks, haven’t you seen how rich Facebook is!), a lack of planet-wide consistency in adjudication and application, investors who seek an attractive product, senior administrators, some alas masquerading as water boys, who make poisonous social media posts, and a public, some of whom are ready to complain. They all add up.

In the past fortnight the game of rugby has reached a dangerous point, where now we must consider the tackler’s intent.

Until now, the protocols have been much like the laws about preventing harassment or bullying at work, where intent doesn’t matter, it’s been 100 per cent about the victim’s experience and protecting them from harm.

Have you ever been to a head injury support group? Typically the only people there as caregivers are direct family – parents and adult children. Spouses often are long gone, having abandoned the injured person after they changed into someone unrecognisable from the person they married.

Whether driven by compassion or insurance liability, World Rugby are right to act. But everybody involved in rugby should be concerned at the nibbling away of the protocols.

Rugby must counteract the nibblers.

Sometimes coaches send players back to the lower grades for work-ons. Players return when they demonstrate their skills are at the required higher level. In the carpenter’s workshop, the equivalent would be the shop foreperson asking the dodgy tradie to provide work of a grade similar to the final-year workpiece that completes the apprenticeship, just to see that the tradie could do it.

The ratio of red cards to ‘sent to the lower grades’ is low. The players so exiled can be counted on the fingers of one hand. What if it became automatic, where a red card inevitably resulted in a stint in the lower grades? The field of play would be made safer at the highest level. The head injury prevention protocols would receive a much needed boost in credibility and bite.

An alternative to automatically sending the red card perpetrators to the lower leagues to demonstrate competence in a less fraught environment that top-tier rugby, would be to put them on apprentice wages until they can show they are worth their salt.

After all, their lack of professional competence is harming their fellow players and the long-term viability of rugby.



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