Watching Richard Barrington bring up his 100th cap for Saracens on Saturday reminded me of everything I love about rugby.
At 27, Barrington will most likely never play for England. He’ll never join the likes of Phil Vickery, Jason Leonard and Jeff Probyn in the pantheon of great English props, but he is however a club centurion, a tag that is cherished and revered in club rugby circles the world over, amateur and professional.
However, Barrington isn’t your average club stalwart, he’s the heartbeat of the Saracens team, a player who has assumed a cult hero status at his club for his notable vigour in leading Saracens post-game chants.
Barrington is the player that every local club, province, pro team and international side needs. The instigator. The pisstaker. The practical joker.
Every team has these types of characters within their side and you knew on Saturday that for Saracens, a side that has established itself as the greatest club team in Europe over the last two years, that it was important for the players to commemorate Barrington’s century of appearances.
Saracens aren’t going to build statues of Richard Barrington after he retires, but you knew on Saturday that it was important for the club to celebrate the prop’s milestone right. And they did.
They sent him out of the tunnel by himself, he happily accepted the round of applause he received from the Saracens faithful the moment he hit the pitch, and he was slapped and patted on the back by his teammates when they eventually joined him on Sarries slick 4G surface at Allianz Park.
It was all going to plan for Barrington and Saracens until he was sent off in the 10th minute for making contact with Geoff Parling’s head, after the England second-rower was clobbered by a Brad Barritt forearm which was only compounded by Barrington’s right shoulder which sent the Exeter lock crashing into the turf.
Barrington red carded, Barritt avoids sanction. pic.twitter.com/HtSJwe9Y7n
— The Pen (@thepenGW) January 7, 2017
And there it was. The second controversial carding for a high tackle in less than 24 hours after Ulster’s Sean Reidy was sin binned for a high tackle on Aled Davies against the Scarlets the night before.
Reidy was sin binned, the Scarlets were awarded a penalty try, and after leading 13-9, Ulster would ultimately go on and lose the game 16-13.
It’s not the last we’ll hear of this…What do you make of this then?
The new law on high tackles means it’s a penalty try for Scarlets…
FT: Scarlets Rugby 16-13 Ulster Rugby Official » http://bbc.in/2hZHS6d
Posted by BBC Wales Sport on Friday, 6 January 2017
Fast forward to Barrington’s red card on Saturday. Saracens captain Brad Barritt escapes sanction for his swinging arm on Parling, while Barrington is dismissed for the rest of the game.
The result of playing with 14 men for 70 minutes? Saracens snap their four game win streak with a 13-13 draw and they also end their run of 16 consecutive wins at home dating back to March 2016.
Ulster Director of Rugby Les Kiss will never admit it, as he almost always says the right thing in any situation with the media, but referee Marius Mitrea’s decision to award the Scarlets a penalty try ultimately cost Ulster the game.
Ulster were reduced to 14 players for 10 minutes at a pivotal juncture in the game, the Scarlets penalty try meant that they had given up their precious four point lead, but it also meant that Scarlets fly-half Dan Jones could take his conversion from right in front of the Ulster posts.
Jones duly converted from point blank range which meant that Ulster had to score two penalties/drop goals or a try in order to win the game. They couldn’t score a try or put the ball between the posts, and they were far from perfect, but Mitrea’s decision directly influenced a very tight game and ultimately the result.
Similarly, at Allianz Park on Saturday, referee Ian Tempest’s decision to dismiss Richard Barrington after 10 minutes directly impacted upon Saracens’ performance, and unlike Les Kiss at Ulster, Sarries boss Mark McCall had no problem in criticising Tempest’s decision to remove Barrington from the field of play.
“That would have been accidental a while ago and now it’s a problem, now it’s red card in a match of big significance and it’s 15 versus 14,” McCall told BBC Radio 5 live.
“In the old days red cards were for reckless, dangerous challenges and we’re going to end up with a lot of games 15 against 14 or 14 against 14 for challenges which aren’t reckless or dangerous, but are accidental and just happen.”
There’s supposed to a category for these type of accidental challenges that McCall is referring to and World Rugby have divided these tackles into two types of challenges; accidental and reckless.
The nightclub style promo World Rugby adopted for their new directive is very questionable, especially the flashing yellow and black strobe lights, a strange touch on such a serious change in the game, but in theory, and with strobe lights aside, the new alterations to Law 10.4 (e) means that accidental challenges will result in a minimum of a penalty with no maximum charge. Basically meaning that a referee can red card a player for a high tackle regardless of whether he deems it to be accidental or reckless.
In Barrington’s situation, Tempest told him ‘unfortunately I have no other option but to send you off’ which he followed up with a swift apology to the player.
Yellow and red cards are subjective at the best of times in rugby. You only need to look back at the Malakai Fekitoa’s yellow card for his swinging arm on Simon Zebo in November for how divided fans can get over bookings, but regardless of whether or not you thought Barrington’s hit on Parling was a yellow or a red card, or if he and Barritt should have both been given yellow cards, or one yellow and one red, referees are being put in a position by World Rugby where they can swing the pendulum wildly with one decision.
Referees have always had this power, and some have traditionally exerted it more than others, but you get the sinking feeling that officials will be forced into making more of these decisions going forward in 2017.
Rugby was one of the earliest mainstream sports to introduce instant replay in 2001 when they brought in the use of a Television Match Official to assist match referees in their decision making.
The technology has assisted referees greatly, and has been a big advantage in international as well as club rugby, but the advantage was born out of removing doubt from referee’s minds.
Video evidence removed any doubt from the referee’s mind as to whether a try should or should not be awarded, whether a player’s tackle was fractionally or blatantly late, or whether a pass in the buildup was forward or flat. The system thrives on video evidence triumphing over human interpretation, but the same cannot be said for World Rugby’s new tackle directives.
The new tackle directives have seemingly created more doubt this weekend, not less. Any decision or directive to encourage contact away from the head should garner the support of the entire rugby community.
The less former players with CTE, dementia or Alzheimer’s the better, that should go without saying, but still critics will say the game is going soft.
Yes, you can no longer recklessly ruck people at the bottom of a ruck. Yes, you can’t run into a melee in 2017 and start a brawl and not get sanctioned and suspended for it, and yes, you can no longer tackle above the shoulders and expect not to get sanctioned for it.
The new tackle directives from World Rugby are positive. Any directive that minimises contact with the head should be openly embraced, however, like most new laws and rule changes in any sport, these changes will take time to develop.
Worcester coach Carl Hogg can no longer expect his two key playmakers to return to play just two weeks after sustaining a concussion. Mike McCarthy, Mark Chisolm and any other players that have suffered a serious concussion now have to be open to the idea of being shut down for an entire season, and rugby fans, like their NFL relatives, will have to get used to players being harshly punished for making contact with the head.
It’s safe, it’s smart, and to some it may be soft, but this is contact sport in 2017, and increasingly it’s starting to become the norm; like it or not.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena