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Should they stay or should they go? A look at send-off options the AFL could introduce

The AFL red card debate has been re-ignited in recent weeks after a couple of high profile incidents have left players, coaches and fans wondering what the recourse is for players who commit foul play that rubs out an opponent for the remainder of the game.

Critics say that as it stands, if a player is forced off with injury due to foul play, the team of the player who committed the offence is not disadvantaged in that game.

Port Adelaide became the latest team to be handicapped in this fashion on the weekend when Robbie Gray was forced from the field after being knocked unconscious when he hit the ground in a Ryan Nyhuis sling tackle.

Nyhuis received a three-game ban at the tribunal after pleading guilty to the charge of careless conduct with severe impact to the head — a penalty that should be enough to be considered a deterrent, but benefits Essendon, Hawthorn and West Coast far more than Port.

External Link: AFL tweet: Robbie Gray has been stretchered off the field after this tackle from Ryan Nyhuis.

Already a man down after Paddy Ryder suffered a hip injury in the second quarter, the Power were forced to play out the remainder of the game with just two players on the bench — a clear disadvantage that was highlighted by the statistics.

Port Adelaide made just 56 interchanges in the nine-point defeat, compared to the 89 made by Fremantle — well under their season average of 81 per game.

The score at the time was 15-15. Port coach Ken Hinkley was upset at the challenge, but disagreed when asked whether a red card system should be introduced.

"No I don't think so. It's just unfortunate that you lose one of your best players from the contest through an incident like that …"

This was not the only contentious, game-defining incident that has taken place in recent weeks in the AFL.

External Link: AFL tweet: Lions defender Harris Andrews has been taken off on a stretcher after this collision with Jeremy Cameron. #AFLLionsGiants

Last month the Brisbane Lions were left shorthanded at the back when key defender Harris Andrews was knocked out by GWS forward Jeremy Cameron's elbow.

Cameron was later banned for five games for the hit that left Andrews with a bleed on the brain — but that is of little benefit to the Lions, who had to watch Cameron go on to score three goals and a behind in the Giants' 27-point win.

All those scores came after Andrews had been stretchered from the field. Lions coach Chris Fagan said the incident, "disadvantaged [the Lions] quite a bit".

And he was right. As he was with his next statement in the post-match press conference.

"What can you do about it? That's footy."

It is for now at least, but should the AFL look closer at their options?

Option one: The send-off

Robert Cornthwaite of Western Sydney Wanderers FC gets a red card against Western Sydney Wanderers.

Adelaide forward Josh Jenkins has spoken in favour of a red card system after seeing Gray leave the field on the weekend.

"When you see a Harris Andrews or Robbie Gray get their game ended … it affected Port big-time yesterday," Jenkins told reporters on Monday.

"They already had an injury to a key player [Ryder] and irrespective or not whether you consider the player that is injured be one of the best or worst players, you're still down [a player].

"So it [a red card system] is something worth talking about. I think it should be discussed."

Common in other codes like soccer — and even in local amateur Australian Rules competitions — a straight send-off is the dispensation of instant justice by the on-field official.

The upside of this is the introduction of an element of deterrence. As it stands, there is nothing stopping a player taking out an opponent deliberately or otherwise other than professional etiquette or a form of sporting morality.

The most that can happen is that the umpire takes his number and he goes on report — with a sizeable suspension likely.

External Link: 3AW Football tweet: "I'm all about match fairness. We all knew Jeremy Cameron was going to get weeks when we saw that incident and Harris Andrews was gone for the game. A send-off rule should be available." Leigh Matthews

The ultimate result, whether deliberate or accidental, is that the team with the injured player is down to 21 fit men, whereas the opposition can still count on the full complement of 22, including a full bench of four interchange players.

Former champions of the game like Leigh Matthews have zeroed in on this imbalance as a reason for a red card option.

While it is true that a lot of incidents in AFL are the result of split-second decisions, the option of a red card — in cases where a game-ending injury is caused — could well have some effect, where players know they may leave their team in serious trouble if tackles or contests go wrong.

Players being instantly sent from the field could have the additional impact of reducing the number of all-in jumper-punch sessions that are a frequent occurrence immediately following a disputed incident — players will no longer have to dispense their own justice.

Critics of this form of punishment say that in the heat of the moment mistakes could be made, with AFL chief Gillon McLachlan saying just last year that introducing a send-off rule would open up the league to "a whole series of inconsistencies".

"There are potential challenges for the umpire to make the right decision every time in the heat of the battle," he said.

While a red card would leave both sides with 21 men, one side would have 18 on the field and the other 17. This is a risk and has the potential to create mismatches and damage the spectacle.

Playing the remainder of the game a man down can be problematic in many sports. In AFL, with it's relatively larger playing area, it would most likely be terminal to a team's efficacy and ability to compete.

Option two: The sin-bin

James Roberts of the NSW Blues is sent to the sin bin for a professional foul in Origin II, 2018.

Rugby union is experiencing its own minor crisis with red and yellow cards of late, with players such as Israel Folau yellow-carded — and later banned for a game — for making aerial contact with Ireland's Peter O'Mahony in the third Test in Sydney.

Regardless of the specifics of Folau's case, which may or may not be an appropriate use of the penalty — both union and rugby league have had the ability to give players a yellow card or "10 in the bin" for a while.

Quite often, the result of players being sin-binned is that the opposition convert their man advantage into points on the scoreboard, and the scoring can end up proving the difference between winning and losing.

The fact this deterrent exists is not enough to stop the relevant behaviour — so-called "professional fouls" and the like — but it provides some improvement on the simple taking-names approach.

Option three: The black card

Gaelic football shares a number of characteristics with Australian rules, but it is their on-field judiciary system that the AFL should take a closer look at.

External Link: Irish Post Sport: Stephen Rochford – "From what I saw, I think it was possibly a fair enough black card." #GAA

The Gaelic Athletic Association introduced a black card to their kaleidoscope of offerings dispensed from the referee's notebook in 2013.

The idea was to stop fouls that stopped clear goal-scoring chances, punishing the player but not the team by allowing a replacement from the bench for the person being sent off.

The rule has been controversial, with some GAA fans and teams concerned about the interpretation and use of the black card by referees.

This system is also used in the NFL and other American sports, where individual players guilty of serious foul play are ejected from the game and are replaced by a team-mate from the bench.

This would remove the issue of playing a man down on the field, but still penalise a team with one less interchange player.

Where to from here?

With all these options, there are several question marks, mainly relating to the interpretation by officials and the balance between punishing the transgression and making an unfair contest.

But given recent events, the clear concern must be — what if an Andrews- or Gray-type incident happens in an elimination final? Or a grand final?

Can the AFL continue to operate in key games with a report the only answer to foul play?

The current indications are that the AFL's new Competition Committee will be considering several potential rule changes, with recommendations going to the AFL Commission following season's end.

This area of the game's rules may not be on the radar — but maybe it should be.

Original Article

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