WITH the spate of yellow and red cards in the autumn Tests, more than a few people have been suggesting that the game is now dirtier than ever.

If you look at some incidents such as Sekope Kepu’s attempt to decapitate Hamish Watson in Scotland’s match against Australia, you might draw that conclusion, and since television coverage always tends to highlight the very bad as well as the good, you might be forgiven for thinking that rugby union has become a game for hooligans played by thugs rather than gentlemen.

If we go by international matches alone the statistics for yellow cards seem to substantiate the contention that the sport has become considerably dirtier as the professional era has developed, but most referees will tell you that, again, this is the fault of television. For with cameras at every major professional match, officials have no excuse for not dealing with incidences of foul play and cheating and consequently top referees have issued more yellow and red cards than in the past – though in truth the stats are not so conclusive.

In terms of single yellow cards alone, Scotland’s players can take pride in the fact that they come well down the list of card earners. In the international Test list, the current worst offender is Australia’s Michael Hooper with eight cards in his career since 2012. The only Scot in the list of the top 30 “yellow men” is Nathan Hines with five gained in 77 matches over 11 years. So it may be that the game here is not any dirtier, it is just being better policed by officialdom who are well aware that the image of rugby needs to be preserved in these money-driven days.

There are still plenty of traditionalists who say it is a man’s game and players should be left to themselves to sort out any nonsense. That was okay, perhaps, in the amateur era when players simply did not have the sheer physical bulk that the modern game demands. In fact it wasn’t even okay back then. It was just that referees allowed a lot more offences to go unpunished because there was no video to back them up and we did not have the sin bin system until 2000, five years after the yellow card ‘caution’ was introduced – believe it or not we can thank English football referee Ken Aston for dreaming up the idea that was first used in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.

Are cards spoiling the game? The Rucker says no, because his concern is always player safety. It never ceases to amaze me that there are not more serious injuries in rugby matches as professional players nowadays are just so big and muscular. I do fear that with players being so fit and tough we will see death on the field from an accidental bad tackle or collapsed scrum, but what absolutely must never happen is that a player dies from deliberate foul play.

Deterrence – that is the most important reason why we need yellow and red cards, and why they are here to stay.