Yellow cards are not as threatening as we think

Israel Dagg is shown the yellow card during New Zealand v Ireland When Israel Dagg clattered into Rob Kearney in Christchurch last weekend, Ireland rubbed their hands at the imminent prospect of binning the century-old New Zealand bogy.
The consequences of Dagg’s late hit condemned the All Blacks to seeing out the rest of a tight match a man short while giving the Irish a long-distance shot with the scores level at 19-all. Even after Jonny Sexton’s attempt fell short, they still had time to make it count.  Unfortunately so, too, did the All Blacks.
Not for the first time the team punished for the sin of a binned player dusted themselves down and ensured that the opposition paid the ultimate penalty, or in this case drop-goal.  Dan Carter’s wobbling winner put another boot into what, according to one expert, has become a ‘complete myth’ – that every yellow card costs the offending team up to seven points.
At his home in Cardiff, former international referee Corris Thomas duly logged the information in his capacity as chief game analyst for the IRB.  He could have been forgiven had he done so with a knowing smile, further proof of what he had told 50 coaches at a conference in Perpignan only last month.
Two hours later, in Melbourne, the latter stages of the second Australia-Wales Test provided further grist to the Thomas mill for debunking this particular piece of what he calls ‘mythology.’  Cooper Vuna’s dangerous challenge on an airborne Leigh Halfpenny appeared to have dropped the
Wallabies in the mire during the final quarter.
Suddenly, they found themselves a point behind and a man down.   Far from being made to pay, they were no worse when they were back to a full complement ten minutes later, each team having kicked a penalty.  Again, it flew in the face of the widespread misconception within the game that a yellow card carries a six or even seven point punishment.
“It’s nonsense,” Thomas said. “I know that if an opinion is repeated often enough it can become a fact but this business about a card being worth up to seven points to the team with 15 men is a myth.  It’s always been a myth.
“I’ve gone through every single card in every international match over several seasons and the average is something like two-and-a-half points to the offended-against team.
“Take this year’s Six Nations as an example.   There were 13 yellow cards in total during the 15 matches.   The team with 15 players received no points benefit on nine occasions as reported in The Rugby Paper last month.  On only one occasion did the points scored in the sin-bin period by the team with 15 players account for the final points margin between the teams.
“I spoke at a Six Nations’ coaches’ conference recently and people were still talking about the high cost of a yellow card.  There has never been any evidence to back that up. I’d love to knock this on the head once and for all.
“I shall continue to log all cards because people just haven’t got the message.   Some still say it’s a myth but they can’t argue because they haven’t got any data.  Some now do accept the reality and find it very useful.
“In over 50 per cent of matches at the last World Cup, no points benefit accrued for a team of 15 playing 14.  In the Six Nations for 2012, the figure was almost 70 per cent.   If that makes me a myth-crusher, so be it.”
The scepticism from some coaches is understandable.  Scotland’s Andy Robinson, for instance, could be forgiven for remaining unconvinced considering the exorbitant price his team paid for two yellows during the mind-boggling finale in Cardiff in 2010 when Wales scored 17 points in the final few minutes to win a match they ought to have lost.
Wales coach Warren Gatland had been on the receiving end of something similar, at Twickenham the same year when Alun-Wyn Jones’ binning for a trip arguably cost Wales the game. Back at Twickenham earlier this year, Wales absorbed the yellow-carding of Rhys Priestland, then their playmaker-in-chief, without any loss.
Their protection of the ball during a long series of pick-and-drives ran the clock down so effectively, and legitimately, that England barely had a sniff of possession before Priestland returned to his post.  As a collective act of preservation, those ten minutes were as crucial as any during the Grand Slam campaign.
No team worth their salt go into a match without a contingency plan to nullify a yellow card which again helps explain Thomas’ finding.    While they prepare for most eventualities, some scenarios cannot be legislated for – like losing your captain during the first quarter of a World Cup semi-final.
Without Sam Warburton for three-quarters against France in Auckland last October, Wales conceded nothing more than nine points during that time.  Incredibly, they would have broken even had James Hook not missed two kickable penalties and Leigh Halfpenny one from long-range.  The on-going furore over Warburton’s red tended to shroud the much more serious loss of Adam Jones through injury and the consequent destablising effect on the Welsh scrum.
“A lot depends on the position of the player who goes to the bin,” Thomas said. “A try is more likely to result, for example, if it’s a forward who goes off when his team has to defend a scrum five metres from their goal line.”
Thomas’ analysis of the World Cup produced another startling fact, that not one lineout drive resulted in a try.  Australia used that ploy from the last set-piece in Melbourne last Saturday and drove it far enough for Wales to pull it down and concede the match as well as the series to Mike Harris’ pressure penalty.
The most startling fact of all is to be found in Thomas’ analysis of yellow cards during the last ten years of the Six Nations.  Measured by that yardstick alone, France, whose fearsome reputation for taking the law into their own hands was built on such mighty front row practitioners as Alfred Roques, are out on their own as the cleanest act in the Championship.
During that time they have been hit by nothing more than two yellow cards, one for every five years. Or, put another way, ten times fewer than Wales, a fact which is unlikely to impress grizzled veterans like Gerard Cholley, the ex-paratrooper and heavyweight boxer of a prop who once famously laid out four Scottish forwards during the first half at Murrayfield.
Six Nations cumulate yellow card totals for the last ten seasons:
France 2, Ireland 8, England 15, Italy 15, Scotland 20, Wales 21

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