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Ex-All Blacks at odds over plethora of red cards in Super Rugby Pacific

By Sam Smith
(Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

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Two former All Blacks, and a current Black Ferns star, have offered contrasting views about the red cards that plagued the latest round of Super Rugby Pacific.


Over the course of the weekend, and the mid-week match between the Blues and Moana Pasifika, a total of four red cards were brandished to those who made contact with the heads of opposition players.

Blues duo Nepo Laulala and Caleb Clarke were both sent off in separate matches against Moana Pasifika last week, with the former clattering into the head of Moana Pasifika midfielder Fine Inisi at a breakdown on Tuesday.

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Clarke, on the other hands, was red carded on Saturday for a failed charge down attempt that saw him leap into the air and collide his thigh with Tomasi Alosio’s head, which left the Moana Pasifika wing concussed and without memory of the incident.

Crusaders hooker Shilo Klein, meanwhile, was sent off for connecting his shoulder with the head of Highlanders prop Ethan de Groot, as was Reds flanker Tuaina Tualima after he crashed into Brumbies prop James Slipper’s head at a ruck.

All of those events have led to plenty of discussions about the number of red cards being handed out, with former All Blacks Mils Muliaina and Steven Bates, as well as Black Ferns midfielder Chelsea Semple, being left divided on the issue.

Speaking on The Breakdown, Muliaina and Bates agreed that the reckless nature of Laulala’s clean out on Inisi “wasn’t necessary” and warranted a red card.


However, they held opposing opinions about Tualima’s red card, with Muliaina stipulating that Tualima’s clean out of Slipper was necessary as he believed the Brumbies veteran was making a nuisance of himself by slowing down the ball for the Reds.

As such, Muliaina said Tualima needed to clean Slipper out, a task that was made tricky given that the latter had shifted his body weight against a Reds player at the ruck, leaving his head as the only target available to clean out for Tualima.

“… When you move bodies, and someone that’s being really niggly and you hit them out of the way, they’re not going to go there again,” Muliaina told The Breakdown.

“In this situation [Laulala’s red card], that was totally off the boil, it wasn’t necessary.


“You’re going to hurt someone compared to a situation that we’d seen last night when Slipper was being an absolute menace, slowed the ball right down, and then Tualima and has to do something about him because he’s slowing their ball.

“His [Slipper’s] chest is on the body [of a Reds player], and that’s where guys get frustrated because [of] acts like that. I disagree that was a red card.”


Bates, however, agreed with the decision to send Tualima off on the basis that he made contact with Slipper’s head, adding the Reds loose forward would have been better off to try an alternative technique to limit the Brumbies star’s disruption.

“I think it has to be a red card because he’s hit him in the head,” Bates told The Breakdown.

“I think it has to be, and that’s the rules… He [Tualima] has no other place to hit, unfortunately, than his [Slipper’s] head. You talk about technique, what he probably needs to do, unfortunately for him, is go there and just hold Slipper in that ruck.”

In the case of Clarke, Muliaina questioned what the five-test All Blacks wing was supposed to do in that situation and suggested that referees were making their decisions based on the outcome of plays rather than the play itself.

“The thing that scares me when they say this process is if anything is on the head, anything sort of hits the head, they’ll work from the red card down,” Muliaina, the World Cup-winning All Blacks centurion, said.

“But then you get a scenario like a Caleb Clarke incident, where he’s actually jumped in the air and then we’ve seen the result of that and the player has been hit on the head.

“Different situation, but does that then say, because he’s hit his head, do we work from the red down? How is Caleb meant to move from that?”

Semple countered Muliaina’s argument by saying that Clarke would have been sent off had he still connected with Alosio’s head regardless of whether he charged the ball down or not.

“For me, it comes back to player welfare, and the line Caleb jumped there, there was no other option but for him to hit him in the head,” Semple told The Breakdown.


“You guys might disagree, but there was never going to be any other outcome if he charged it down or not, so player welfare, to me, is the most important thing, and referees have to be consistent.

“When there is force to someone’s head, that’s endangering player welfare. They have to be consistent, that’s why the red cards are coming.”

Muliaina disagreed, though, as he brought into question how officials are able to judge the best course of action Clarke could have taken in that instance.

“I disagree with that, because how do you determine what Caleb Clarke has to do? Are you going to say, ‘Okay, I’ve got to determine player welfare here? I can’t jump and try and charge it down,’” he said.

“If he gets up and catches the ball and charges it down and hits him in the head, is that then a red card and the responsibility is on Caleb to say, ‘Hey, you’re supposed to take responsibility in terms of player welfare?’

“You can’t move in the air. He has three options: I go up in the air and try and charge it down, I let him go past and try and chase, or do I just pull out?

“There’s no way in a sport that’s moving this fast that you’re going to go, ‘Oh, mate, you have a go and I’ll try and chase that.’

“It’s split[-second] decisions, and I get the player welfare scenario, but I think there needs to be a discussion on different scenarios compared to what Nepo Laulala had done and what happened with the Slipper incident as well.”

Bates agreed with Muliaina’s stance as he disapproved of comments made by the referee that sent Clarke off, James Doleman, in which he said the wing was never in a realistic position to charge the ball down.

“I think the Caleb one is a grey one. I’m not saying it’s right what happened, but one thing I do know is that, on the field, one of the things said by the referee was, ‘You were never in a realistic opportunity to catch the ball,'” Bates said.

“I disagree. If you look at the thing, he misses it by about that much, so if he catches the ball, he runs 100 metres – the same thing happens, there’s still a player on the ground and he runs 100 metres – is that still a red card?”


Despite the views of Muliaina and Bates, Semple held firm on her stance on Clarke’s dismissal, saying it was no different to the red card ex-Ireland No 8 CJ Stander received for colliding into the head of former Springboks pivot Pat Lambie in 2016.

“To me, this is exactly the same. This is a player not jumping into the line of where the leg is and where the kick’s coming from, but it’s directly into a player and directly into someone’s head,” the 2017 World Cup winner said.

“I get that the Caleb situation is different because of the angles and where he’s jumping from, but if the outcome, to me, is going to be that you’re making contact with the head, regardless if you’re going for the ball or not, that’s an infringement.”

Although he labelled the concussions sustained by Alosio and Lambie as “absolutely horrific” and “the worst possible outcome”, Muliaina reinforced his concerns that referees were officiating based on the outcomes of those plays.

“… You’re not going in to a charge down going, ‘Oh man, I’ve got to think about the player welfare of the person,’” Muliaina told The Breakdown.

“What worries me is if someone goes down and they’re not injured, all of a sudden the referees are now refereeing based on the outcome. That’s where the grey area comes.

“There needs to be a really good discussion about how that works in terms of a charge down because the last thing we want is a guy going, ‘Have a free ride because I’m not going to be able to contest for that.’”


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