Rugby's red-card replacement trial: Is it achieving its desired outcomes?

They're the numbers that should both please and concern Rugby Australia, but also deliver a message to World Rugby administrators that one of supporters' biggest gripes with the game can be addressed.

For the second year running, Super Rugby AU has employed the 20-minute red card replacement law variation - as has New Zealand's Super Rugby Aotearoa - as the game searches for a happy medium of appropriate sanctioning and not completely ruining a match itself.

World Rugby has made player safety a huge focal point over the past few years, firstly through its high-tackle framework and then with the updated "head contact process" from March 2021.

Worryingly for RA administrators, Wallabies coaches and their Super Rugby AU counterparts, research conducted by ESPN found that there were seven foul play red cards issued in this year's regular season compared with zero last year.

But with the introduction of the 20-minute replacement variation - where the offending team can bring on a substitute after 20 minutes has elapsed - the team with the one-man advantage finished only with a cumulative one-point differential when the law actually came into play, before the 60th minute.

Furthermore, across the four games when it did come into play, the team whose player had been red-carded went on to win the contest on three occasions.

"We don't want to see red cards from a game perspective because they do impact the game," RA Referees Manager Scott Young told ESPN. "But with the 20-minute rule that's come into place, where there has been only a one-point advantage; the law was brought in to stop the impact that a red card has on the game, and certainly that's been effective.

"But we certainly don't want to see the number of red cards that are happening."

Of the seven red cards issued across Super Rugby AU's regular season - Brumbies back-rower Tom Cusack was also sent off late in Round 7 against the Waratahs after he received two yellows - four were for high contact, one for dangerous entry to a ruck and another for a lifting tackle. Force hooker Andrew Ready was meanwhile marched for punching during his side's Round 3 win over the Waratahs in Sydney.

And there were only two further citings in Super Rugby AU this season, one of which came out of the weekend's game in Perth when Tevita Kuridrani was yellow carded for a lifting tackle, before it was later deemed to have met the red-card threshold and he was handed a three-week suspension.

Young said that while the number of red cards was disappointing, the fact that only two further citings had occurred proved his refereeing team was largely getting things right.

"They've been accurate on the way they've adjudicated it and part and parcel of that is the instructions coming down from World Rugby and tightening up on that head-contact area particularly, which has been a concern of theirs for a long time.

"And the other thing is that they [the referees] are being backed up by the judiciary. The judiciary comes up under the World Rugby guidelines as well, so as far as I'm concerned there has been a consistent approach across the board."

The counter arguments to the red card replacement variation are that it is not enough of a deterrent against foul play and that it perhaps doesn't offer a big enough advantage to the team whose player has been the subject of the incident.

Certainly in the weekend's game in Sydney, when the Rebels went on to defeat the Waratahs 36-25 despite Isi Naisarani being marched for a high tackle in the 19th minute, the outcome would have likely been different had the visitors had to play with 14 men for 60 minutes of rugby.

Still, Waratahs co-coach Jason Gilmore could still see the good in the variation for the game, even though his side would have been far better placed to break their season drought had Naisarani not been able to be replaced.

"Maybe not after the weekend, but it's good for the fact it doesn't wreck the contest; it's great for the fans," Gilmore told ESPN.

The Waratahs coach did however raise the situation whereby had Max Douglas, the player collected high by Naisarani, been ruled out of the remainder of the match the Waratahs would have effectively been a player down just as the Rebels were.

Gilmore pointed to the NRL's recent introduction of an 18th man rule, whereby a team can activate a fifth reserve if one of their players can no longer play any part in the match due to an act of foul play, as a potential addendum to rugby's red-card replacement law.

"But what if Max Douglas had failed his HIA? We then lose our lineout caller; we've lost a player we don't get to replace ... perhaps we could bring an extra player on from the bench?

"[The NRL] has a very interesting model, using an 18th man. It's only new but I definitely think its something we need to explore."

One area of concern for each of Australia's teams ahead of the trans-Tasman competition will be the fact that the tackling technique of New Zealand's five franchises has seemingly been better across the board, with only Blues prop Alex Hodgman red carded for a dangerous tackle in Super Rugby Aotearoa. There was also only two further citings, one of which was later thrown out at the judiciary.

While there is yet to be any official communication, the fact that both tournaments have implemented the law variation the last two years suggests it will be carried through to the trans-Tasman crossover series which kicks off next month.

And it's no secret in this part of the world that the majority of rugby stakeholders are in favour of the 20-minute replacement trial, with coaches, players, broadcasters and, most importantly, fans, all desiring an even contest whenever possible.

There may need to be another clause added whereby an act of truly despicable foul play - be it punching, eye-gouging or biting, as rare as they might be - is still treated as a complete send-off with no ability for the player to be replaced.

And there will also be the issue of convincing those in the northern hemisphere who are traditionally less inclined to tinker with rugby's laws, no matter what supporters are wanting to see.

But given the fledgling PRO14 Rainbow Cup will adopt the 20-minute variation, alongside the captain's challenge and goalline dropout, the tide may at last be turning.