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'I'm not sure what to say to Caleb': MacDonald's take on Clarke's red card

By Tom Vinicombe
Caleb Clarke. (Photo by Brett Phibbs/Photosport)

Unsurprisingly, the sending off of Caleb Clarke was a hot topic following the Blues’ 46-16 victory over Moana Pasifika at Eden Park on Saturday night.

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Clarke was shown a red card in the 53nd minute after jumping in an attempt to charge down a kick by Tomasi Alosio but instead collided with the Moana Pasifika winger, who had to leave the field following the incident.

Clarke’s actions were deemed “reckless”, with referee James Doleman suggesting that he hadn’t been in a realistic position to charge the ball down.

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The red card ignited debate on social media and while Blues coach Leon MacDonald certainly didn’t want to suggest that Doleman had made an error in sending Clarke from the field, he was struggling to wrap his head around the card immediately following the game.

“I think you can understand why they called a red card; there was a contact to the head and it’s about player safety and that’s important. I understand that,” MacDonald said post-match.

“Then you sort of look at Caleb and you go, ‘He’s trying to charge the ball down, he wasn’t that far away from getting it’. My whole career I’ve watched players do that but we haven’t seen that sort of contact and it’s probably his fault for being so athletic and jumping so high.”

MacDonald suggested that it may well be a case of Clarke – and the rest of the Blues’ players – rethinking how they challenge for the ball in the air, depending on how Clarke’s inevitable run at the judiciary goes.

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“I’ll be interested to see the feedback from the referees and what that looks like because Caleb will need to change his technique and our wingers or whoever’s in that position will need to change their technique because obviously it didn’t end well,” the coach said.

“It’s looking like if you’re gonna get yourself in a situation where you might be making contact off the ball – and especially with the head – then technically we’re going to have to look at some different things.

“Over the comms I heard that he timed his jump wrong so I need to understand what that means as well – is it too early or too late? I thought he jumped quite early, trying to get in the way of the kick, so does that mean he [needs] to jump late? When was the right time to jump? All those things we’ll just have to look at.”

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MacDonald also noted that past precedent from matches around the world would also likely play a part in moving forward.

“I haven’t seen that happen before and I’ve watched a lot of rugby. I don’t know if you guys have seen somebody to charge it down and make contact and it ended in a red card so whether it’s just one of those moments or something new, I’m not sure. We’ll just need some clarification and making sure we can do what we can do in terms of controlling it better.

“I’d like to see what’s happened previously in similar situations and there’ll be some cases around the world at some point around the same situation and that’ll be interesting. It’ll probably be the first thing we look at.”

Such an incident did occur in a test match between Ireland and South Africa in 2016, with Irish flanker CJ Stander clattering into Pat Lambie in very similar circumstances to what occurred in Auckland on Saturday night. Lambie was knocked out cold from the collision and had to deal with major concussion issues throughout the rest of his career, with the Springboks flyhalf retiring just two years later.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve been through in my career,” Stander later told Rapport of the incident. “Since then, I’ve not jumped up to challenge for a ball unless it’s in a lineout … It will be a stain on my career forever.”

 

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Clarke’s challenge has hopefully not left Alosio in a similar position to Lambie (thankfully, the Moana Pasifika winger returned to his feet and walked off the pitch) and MacDonald emphasised that despite the red card potentially being the right call, it certainly wasn’t a malicious act.

“Because sometimes rugby, it’s dynamic, it’s quick and things do happen,” he said. “I feel sorry for Caleb because there’s no malice in it, he’s generally trying to charge the ball down and here he is on the sidelines.

“It’s a tough call. I’m not disagreeing with the call. I think there’s a safety element there and there was contact there and the referee’s hands were nearly tied. I’m not sure what to say to Caleb. I don’t think he was reckless and I think it was just unfortunate.”

MacDonald added that whatever eventuated, the Blues would unsurprisingly support Clarke moving forward, with the All Blacks winger appearing revitalised in 2022 after a somewhat underwhelming season last year.

“We’ll be trying to support Caleb obviously because he’s obviously an important player to us and hopefully things go well.”

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