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The red mist: Super Rugby's big problem

Opinion - It seems depressing, but here we are in April of yet another season, having a discussion about the same old thing: officiating - or at least the laws those officials are trying to uphold.

Blues wing Caleb Clarke is red carded in their match against Moana Pasifika at Eden Park.
Blues wing Caleb Clarke is red carded in their match against Moana Pasifika at Eden Park. Photo: Andrew Cornaga/Photosport

Last year it was the influence of the TMO. The year before it was the massive penalty counts that came about by an ill-judged change in interpretations.

This week, it's about the plethora of red cards handed out last weekend and the fallout from them.

I made a not-so-bold prediction on Sunday that Caleb Clarke's ejection from the Blues' victory over Moana Pasifika would be the most talked about of the week and so it came to pass, with a few days of scrutiny because the Blues contested the charge. This meant the judicial hearing took place on Wednesday night. They lost, and Clarke has been suspended for three weeks over his ill-timed charge-down attempt.

That is the same amount of time that Crusaders hooker Shilo Klein got for his ridiculously illegal and dangerous shoulder charge to Ethan de Groot's head. It's also the same as Clarke's team mate and All Black Nepo Laulala got for ploughing into a ruck and taking out Moana Pasifika winger Fini Inise in their other game last Tuesday night.

Which is rubbish. Especially since it took several replays for Klein's act to even get noticed by the TMO in that game, with the actual card he got feeling like an afterthought.

NZ Rugby had a feeling this was coming in the wake of the litany of reds (there were two more in the Australian games, making it five players sent from the field in the round), so called a pre-emptive press conference with its referees boss Bryce Lawrence on Tuesday. It was very much like the other times Lawrence fronted the media, with a focus on deflecting blame from the officials themselves (not that there really has been much, and fair enough too) and continuing the confusing narrative that player safety is paramount but so is providing an entertaining spectacle.

Therein lies the problem. If Clarke is getting sent off and then justifiably suspended, you can't have it both ways.

The way the laws are being interpreted now lends itself to red cards being more and more of an inevitability. Lawrence stressed that red cards were an effective deterrent but it's very hard to agree when five are given out over the weekend. It's even harder when the Blues didn't even think Clarke had a case to answer and unsuccessfully contested it (they changed their tune very quickly though, with assistant coach Daniel Halangahu saying 12 hours after the guilty verdict that they now "support keeping players safe, so we've got to adjust how we do things").

But what makes it almost impossible to agree is the fact that red cards have little bearing on the game itself. The Blues lost Clarke and Laulala and still comfortably won both times. This isn't new either - both times the All Blacks had men sent from the field last century, in 1925 and 1967, they won too. Red cards have never been a very effective deterrent, and likely never will be.

Lawrence also made the claim that the weekend's royal flush of reds was a "one-off" which is pretty bold really. If Klein can do something that stupid, Laulala (an All Black who should really know better) can do something that reckless and Clarke can do something that could so easily be a costly mistake, it's highly likely this isn't going to be the last time players get sent off in Super Rugby Pacific.

With a full slate of NZ derby games coming up again starting tonight, we might not even have to wait long to have another case to ponder. When really, we should just be talking about the game itself.