Mike Tindall interview: Rugby must stop messing around with red cards and embrace physicality

Mike Tindall tackles Australia's Joe Roff
Mike Tindall (right) was a defensive leader for England - Getty Images/Nick Laham

Former England rugby captain Mike Tindall has hit out at red cards being issued for accidental play and said rugby should embrace the physical side of the game.

The Rugby World Cup-winning centre called into question why cards were being handed out when there was clearly no malice involved in a phase of play.

Tindall, 45, who won 75 caps for England, said he felt the game needed to change for the better.

“The game is in a real tough spot,” Tindall told Telegraph Sport. “It is a game played by educated people and watched by educated people but at the same time the game has to figure out what it is and from my point of view, having played it for 20 years, and I still watch it now, we’re basically a physical game and we need to just embrace that.

“That’s going to be hard knocks, that is what it is. That’s why we play Test matches, it’s a test of your body, your mind, your soul and that’s what people love to see. I think we have got to embrace what we are.”

Tindall added: “We need to make training less physical and make it more skills based. I think that it’s changing though, and teams have taken it on their own self to do it. I don’t think we can make the game less physical because you are talking about getting red cards now for miniscule things that no one can actually make a difference to at the time. They just can’t. It’s a reaction thing.

“We don’t ever want teams finishing with 14 men and when you look at what that has done to social media, and how the game is talked about, and how referees are treated when they are in a position that they followed the letter of the law and it will be a red card...

“Everything in rugby, unfortunately, every law is open to its own interpretation and opinion, and everyone has a different opinion, so I think from that point of view it really then opens the game up for self-criticism and brings in that social-media hatred that we have seen so much with referees leaving the game, players taking a break from internationals because they have had enough of it.

Owen Farrell in action for England
Owen Farrell has taken a break from England duty for his own mental health - Getty Images/Adam Pretty

“That’s not what we want. So we can’t say we are getting it right, it’s not right. I feel other sports like rugby league are putting incidents on report.

“The other week in the Champions Cup someone tripped up, got kicked in the face by his own friend and while stumbling stood on someone’s head and got a red card.

“Something that was completely accidental and he had no control over it and is getting kicked in the throat by his own team-mate and unfortunately his stud accidentally caught someone else’s head and he gets a red card for it.

“There’s no malice in that, why are we getting red cards for things that are complete accidents and there is no malice?

“You don’t judge a red card on what the consequences are of what happened, like the other guy cut his head so it must be a red card or the other guy is injured so it must be a red card.

“It’s not how it works, but a rugby incident that is just pure, accidental bad luck loses games. It costs games, we are talking about a game that costs money and going down to 14 men completely just swings the game into someone else’s favour.”

‘Do not change the game from what makes it appealing’

Tindall questioned the motives behind the concussion lawsuit, which has seen nearly 300 former players take legal action against the Rugby Football Union, Welsh Rugby Union and World Rugby, in regards to what those involved wish to achieve. The 2003 World Cup winner also suggested a global benevolent fund as a better mechanism to help struggling ex-professionals in order not to take money out of the game but to use it to help those within it.

“Now, within that, we have to look after the guys who are playing it to the best of their ability, but I think that doesn’t involve changing the game from what makes it appealing. I think if you mess around with the game too much... I think now we have to spend all the time looking at what goes on off the field rather than on it,” Tindall explained.

“The work that is going behind it and research, obviously the gum shields, the technology as well as the hits – you have brain scanning for players to make sure they know where they are and brain tracking to make sure you know what their brains are looking like and post-care making sure that we care for players after the game.

“If they have given their life and soul to the game we should be looking after them, as they are not going to make a load of money.”

Tindall, who played for both Bath and Gloucester during his career, has not suffered in the same way as his former England hooker team-mates Steve Thompson, who has been diagnosed with early onset dementia, and tighthead prop Phil Vickery.

They are among a group of at least 295 former players who have launched a concussion lawsuit and are suing the game’s governing body for damages.

Steve Thompson with neuropathologist Professor Steve Gentleman
Steve Thompson (left) has been diagnosed with early onset dementia - BBC/Gemma Duncan

“I love this game, I think it creates great characters, and my worry with the lawsuit is what is the endgame, what is it there for and is this the best way of doing it?” Tindall said.

“You speak to people about what is not there at the moment and it’s a fund and a facility that looks after players who play the game. Whereas now they look at certain clubs and they have benevolent funds now for old players. So people are starting to pick up on the fact that clubs and unions are responsible for the support given to those who play the game.

“If you put on the white jersey for England or the jersey for Wales you are giving yourself to something that is bigger on the field and things can go wrong on that field – so you should be looked after. I don’t think the people at the top of the game think about that, unfortunately. I think the players are still viewed as a commodity.”

‘We need a worldwide benevolent fund’

Tindall, who is organising a charity ski challenge in Saalbach, Austria, called Mikey’s Mountain Miles, sponsored by Skiset, said he feared the financial impact on the game.

“We are not making enough money to look after our own selves medically – some people do, but some people don’t. I think the game is responsible for having something that can help players post their career,” he said.

“That is what is missing but if we go down this route of suing, God knows how much that is going to cost – you are just taking money out of the game that could go into that solution.

“And is there not a better way of doing it than... that means World Rugby, or the RFU or the WRU opening up and going, ‘OK we have got this wrong’, which I don’t think they will say, but we need to look and start doing this worldwide benevolent fund, with who played the game building that. We don’t have it now but we should start the process, it would be helpful.”

Tindall is the patron of the Matt Hampson Foundation, which supports the treatment of young people seriously injured through sport – which will be one of the charities to benefit through the skiing challenge held from March 5-9 – and he is also backing Wings for Life, which is helping to find a cure for spinal-cord injuries.

‘I think there are lifestyle choices’

Tindall admitted, given the nature of the physical way he played the game, he would have thought he would also have suffered with his health, but he underlined there were a number of factors that had an impact on retired players.

“There’s so much more to early onset dementia than just having played the game and having taken knocks,” he said. “If you look at my career, I would probably be prime to that.

“I was a physical player. I made God knows how many tackles, that was my sort of role as a defensive leader and everything else. I was bringing that physicality. I was one of the first bigger sort of centres, a crash ball-type centre, the hard-running centre, whatever you want.

“I would sit probably way more in that [category] – I think forwards are more likely to be sitting there just because of the nature of it as they have more contact and more collisions.”

Mike Tindall tackles George Gregan
Tindall was a physical player for England - AP/Rob Griffith

He added: “I think there are lifestyle choices. There is no doubt it’s how clean you live your life, there’s hereditary stuff – there’s so much more that goes into it, I think, than just what goes on the pitch and what goes on the training paddock.

“We look too much into it thinking that by tackling lower that’s suddenly going to change everything. Even if you tackle around the chest, around the waist, you are still having the initial contact of going into those tackles and your head getting swung from side to side, flattening to the ground, the shaking of the brain. You are still going to get... I don’t feel like it’s going to revolutionise. I think we have got rid of all the malice stuff where we don’t have those shoulder charges, we don’t have elbows leading – we don’t have those things that needed to go out of the game.

“We have eradicated all of that malice and the horrible stuff and now you are talking margins that you can’t process quick enough to change outcomes.

“So that’s why you have just got to embrace what we are in the game, which everyone loves, that physical aspect, and everyone loved that Ireland versus South Africa game in the World Cup because everyone left everything on the field, and that’s what I want, as a fan, to see.”

Anyone wishing to sign up to his ski challenge should go to