Gerry Thornley: repercussions of captain’s challenge need to be considered

While red card replacement should be scrapped jury remains out on challenge trial

The trial which permits a red-carded player to be replaced by a team-mate after 20 minutes is an absolute crock. Effectively, it makes a sending-off a glorified sin-binning of 20 minutes instead of 10. It may as well be called an orange card, reducing as it does the sanction for foul or dangerous play, and should be discarded as soon as possible.

As for the captain's challenge, the evidence so far is altogether more of a mixed bag.

On the opening weekend of the Rainbow Cup it was seen to its designed effect when the clock and the game seemed to be up for Connacht in the Kingspan Stadium.

Ulster led 24-21 and Kieran Marmion appeared to have lost the ball forward when tackled by Michael Lowry but Eoghan Masterson, having assumed the captaincy from the replaced Paul Boyle, approached referee Andrew Brace and asked for a captain's challenge on the basis that Lowry had illegally stripped the ball from Marmion.


Brace referred the matter to his TMO Brian MacNeice, and sure enough Lowry had stripped the ball from Marmion on the deck. Connacht kicked to the corner and attacked infield before going left for Conor Fitzgerald to grubber into the in-goal area where Peter Sullivan pounced for the winning try in the fifth minute of overtime.

The captain's challenge will invariably lead to bad blood between rival coaches and players

Justice had been seen to be done and but for the captain’s challenge it wouldn’t have been. Viewed purely by this example, it has to be seen as worth persisting with.

Of course, every time a captain's challenge is referred to the TMO it leads to another stoppage in play which further tries the patience of supporters already going weary with so many stoppages. Last Friday's game between Leinster and Ulster at the RDS finished over an hour and 50 minutes after it started, a 54-minute first half being followed by a 46-minute second half.

The captain’s challenge will invariably lead to bad blood between rival coaches and players, seeing as the trial specifically states that foul play challenges can be made after any stoppage in play if the captain believes foul play has been missed by the match officials.

In that same Ulster-Connacht game, for example, Andy Friend was far from pleased with Ulster’s use of their challenge when they asked Brace to revisit Abraham Papali’i’s hit on Matty Rea in the build-up to Dave Shanahan’s 73rd-minute score that had put the home side ahead.

Similarly, in the 30th minute of last Friday's game at the RDS, Iain Henderson used his captain's challenge to have Robbie Henshaw's big, high hit on Robert Baloucoune referred to the TMO, Olly Hodges, by referee Mike Adamson.

Ulster had been awarded a penalty for offside against Jordan Larmour but Henderson felt Henshaw’s hit was also worthy of sanction, and perhaps more than a penalty.

Adamson and Hodges looked at the incident from a few different angles on at least 10 occasions. They concluded that there was no clear contact by Henshaw’s shoulder on Baloucoune’s head which serves to highlight that what constitutes a yellow or red card for a high hit is down to so many variables and a referee’s interpretation – indeed, witness the contrasting reaction of some pundits.

Not only was Henderson aghast but speaking on Premier Sports, Darren Cave, Ulster’s joint most capped player of all time, said he hated absolutely everything about the tackle which he described as a shocking advertisement for the game. Speaking on Eir Sport, Gordon D’Arcy, Leinster’s second most capped player of all time, agreed with the officials that there was no contact with Baloucoune’s head, that Henshaw had wrapped his arms and that it was “on the edge”.

In truth, they’re possibly both right, in that it was a shocking advertisement for the game but, by the letter of the law, was on the edge.

As an aside, imagine how Henshaw and Leinster might have felt had Henderson’s challenge led to a red card and a suspension for his fellow Lion, even though Henderson was entirely within his rights?

Maybe it's the lack of crowds that has made player's entreaties to referees more audible but so far there's been little evidence that it's had such an effect

All of these challenges also highlight the ineffectiveness of the TMOs, who should have the power to intervene in the initial example of Lowry illegally stripping Marmion of the ball and be encouraged to do so. Think of the Autumn Nations Cup and those two English knock-ons being missed in the build-up to their equalising try. Imagine that being repeated in the World Cup final.

Frankly, it was amazing that between them, Adamson and Hodges, hadn’t looked at Henshaw’s high hit of their own volition.

The advent of video referrals and TMOs has, as expected, already undermined the once sacred on-field respect for officials among players. One senses that the captain’s challenge was in part designed to address this, ie put up or shut up. Maybe it’s the lack of crowds that has made player’s entreaties to referees more audible but so far there’s been little evidence that it’s had such an effect.

If anything, au contraire, witness Adamson penalising Ian Madigan for audibly declaring one of his decisions to be “a f***ing joke”. Toward the end, running out of patience, Adamson snapped, turned toward a Leinster player and shouted: “Would you shut up?”

Another likely consequence of the captain’s challenge is the frequency with which they will be chanced after the full-time whistle has gone if there is only a score in the game on the basis that there is nothing to lose at that point. Not all will have the validity of Masterson’s challenge.

The full-time whistle having gone, Adamson did not permit Luke McGrath a captain’s challenge for a high tackle on the grounds that the Leinster captain had been advised to do so by the team doctor.

The wording of this law trial does not specifically state either way whether a captain can be prompted from a member of his backroom staff or a non-playing member of the squad, but Adamson was surely correct in decreeing such a plea was not in the spirit of the captain’s challenge.

Otherwise, it could lead to repeat examples of backroom staff running onto the pitch and offering such advice to the losing on-field captain, which would be farcical.

On balance, the captain’s challenge has been worth a trial, but the jury is, at best, still out.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times