SANZAAR has dished out 16 weeks’ worth of suspensions for the five red cards that were issued in Round 7 of Super Rugby Pacific, after Caleb Clarke was on Wednesday night handed a three-week ban for an incident that continues to divide opinion.
The wider issue of foul play remains the hot topic in Super Rugby Pacific, as players, coaches and supporters alike try and get their heads around just what and what does not warrant a red card, and then also any suspension.
While there could be no doubting that each of Nepo Laulala, Shilo Klein, Nemani Nagusa and Tuiana Taii Tualima all deserved their suspensions, Clarke’s incident has thrown up yet another different form of collision.
The Blues winger was on Saturday sent off after colliding with Tomasi Alosio, Clarke’s hip catching Alosio flush on the head after he had attempted to charge down the Moana Pasifika winger’s kick.
“Having conducted a detailed review of all the available evidence, including all camera angles and additional evidence, including from the player and submissions from his legal representative, Aaron Lloyd, the Judicial Committee upheld the Red Card under Law 9.11,” SANZAAR’S judicial statement read on Clarke.
“With respect to sanction, the Judicial Committee deemed the act of foul play merited a mid-range entry point of six weeks due to the World Rugby directive that mandates that any incident of foul play involving contact with the head must start at a mid-range entry level.
“Taking into account mitigating factors, including the Player’s good judicial record, the manner he held himself through the proceedings, expressed remorse with multiple attempts to check on the injured player, and his young age; the Judicial Committee reduced the suspension by three weeks.
“The player is therefore suspended for three weeks, up to and including 23 April 2022.”
But Clarke’s suspension will be a hard one for some to reconcile, particularly after Brumbies fullback Tom Banks got off with only a warning for a head clash a fortnight earlier, an incident that had multiple precedents where a ban had been issued.
Former Ireland back-rower CJ Stander was in 2016 sent off, and later handed a one-week suspension, following an incident similar to Clarke’s in a Test against the Springboks in South Africa.
Speaking on the Blues Brothers podcast, ahead of Clarke’s hearing, New Zealand Rugby [NZR] referees manager and former Test whistle-blower Bryce Lawrence said he could understand the frustrations with the winger’s dismissal but also that referee James Doleman and his assistants had all agreed the incident warranted foul play.
“Yeah I know it’s interesting. I get what you’re saying but every time there’s people in the air, like a high kick and a collision, it’s always debatable around how different people see it,” Lawrence said in response to a question from former All Blacks and Blues scrum-half, Steve Devine, around what the actual foul play had been in the Clarke incident.
“So in the Caleb incident, the match official team believed that there was foul play, that he did get in air, wasn’t able to charge the ball down, and then collided with the person who had kicked it and chasing it.”
Devine then raised the issue of intent, of which there was none in the Clarke incident, but then also referenced the Banks tackle, which similarly had no intent, but yet was only deemed to be worthy of a warning at the judiciary.
While mitigating factors helped Banks dodge a ban, SANZAAR’ judiciary panel deemed there to be none in Clarke’s collision, while the presence of “intent” is not part of World Rugby’s head contact process.
“We trial the 20-minute red card in Super Rugby and are continuing to trial that in the second year, based on player and fan and team feedback around it, everybody wants 15 on 15 and wants the contest to be a true rugby contest,” Lawrence said in response.
“The overriding driver is player safety…but things sometimes happen and are just unfortunate outcomes of a collision-based high contact sport. The judgement that referees make around red cards, and let’s be clear we don’t have a lot of them really; I think last weekend was a little bit of a one-off weekend for us, there’s normally one red card on average in every five games, but last year we only had a couple in all the games in New Zealand. So we don’t have a lot.
“And you don’t have a lot of players who are deliberately going out there trying to hurt the opposition, it’s just sometimes things happen. And referees are grappling with exactly what you’re saying around trying to make the right judgement, based on how they view things.
“And it’s a reasonably new process that’s only been around for 18 months, and we’re learning how to apply that; I’m reasonably confident everyone is on the same page [but] every incident is quite unique.”
With its three-week suspension handed to Clarke, SANZAAR has seemingly set a precedent for when a similar incident arises.
Tournament partners NZR and Rugby Australia will meanwhile be hoping for far fewer incidents of foul play in Round 8, which begins on Friday with Moana Pasifika facing the winless Highlanders in Dunedin, than the five that arose last weekend.
From swinging arm high tackles to illegal cleanouts, head clashes and now aerial collisions, the competition has seen almost the full slate of foul play incidents.
There is the belief in some quarters that both New Zealand and Australia had been slow to adapt to World Rugby’s crackdown on head contact, and that Super Rugby Pacific is only now catching up with the rest of world.
Speaking in Sydney earlier this week, World Rugby chief executive Alan Gilpin said he was confident that the recent spate of foul play incidents would soon subside in Super Rugby.
“I think we’ve gone out with a really strong message in terms of sanction around head injury and head impact, in particular, that’s really important so we can address tackle technique, the height, the high hits, etcetera,” Gilpin said. “And over time I think what we will see is the players and the coaches adapt to that and we’ll end up coming out the right side.”