Leon MacDonald’s immediate thoughts after watching Blues wing Caleb Clarke flatten Tomasi Alosio in a red card incident, which has divided social media, included what he should say to Clarke afterwards given the unique circumstances surrounding the collision, and the length of the inevitable suspension.
It should go without saying too that MacDonald’s thoughts would have gone to the Moana Pasifika wing Alosio, who had attempted to chip the ball over Clarke in the 52nd minute of the Blues’ 46-16 victory, only to collect Clarke’s knee to the side of his head as his opponent tried to charge it down.
Afterwards Alosio couldn’t remember the incident, a violent, albeit accidental, clash. After lying prone near the sideline for many minutes he was helped off the field but, according to assistant coach Dale MacLeod, was in relatively good health and humour in the changing room afterwards.
Referee James Doleman, after consulting his fellow officials, sent Clarke off.
As Blues coach MacDonald said, such collisions are relatively rare on a rugby field which is why another of his thoughts was on what a ban might look like for Clarke. Clashes when two players are contesting high balls have become less common (because they are now heavily penalised), while high tackles or bad cleanouts are also more harshly sanctioned. A clash during the act of an attempted charge down has few precedents.
There is one that compares, however - that of Ireland loose forward CJ Stander against South Africa’s No.10 Pat Lambie during a test in Cape Town in 2016.
Stander, a South African making his test debut for Ireland at Newlands, attempted to charge down a Lambie kick but collided with Lambie instead. It was a sickening incident and Lambie, clearly concussed, was never the same player – three years later, on the advice of two neurologists, he retired due to concussion issues.
Stander, who retired from the game last year, was never the same either. In an interview with Rapport in 2020, Stander spoke about how the incident involving a former teammate had affected him.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about it,” Stander said. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve been through in my career. Since then, I’ve not jumped up to challenge for a ball unless it’s in a lineout.
“I was disappointed in myself but also for my family. It will be a stain on my career for ever. After that game, I didn’t care if I played or if we won again. I was just worried that he was OK.”
The judiciary took 11 hours to make the decision to suspend Stander for one week, but that was six years ago and attitudes within the game have changed.
The Stander incident appeared worse than Clarke's because of the size difference of the two players, his more aggressive jump at Lambie, and Lambie’s immediate concussion symptoms, but Clarke is likely to get a longer ban because of the decreased tolerance in the game for contact with the head.
This past Super Rugby round included four red cards in four matches; starting with Blues prop Nepo Laulala’s against Moana Pasifika last Tuesday night, hooker Shilo Klein’s for the Crusaders against the Highlanders, Clarke’s against Moana Pasifika at Eden Park and Reds loose forward Tuaina Tualima against the Brumbies.
The red cards will continue for as long as the game is played under the same rules. As MacDonald said, it’s a dynamic, fast, game played by powerful athletes, but players must be wary about putting themselves into positions that can be judged as reckless.
Clarke couldn't control his leap once he was in the air - an argument shared by his supporters - but his athleticism combined with his misjudged timing meant he put himself into a compromised position.
There will always be an element of risk. Thankfully, Alosio appears to be OK because, while rare, the Lambie incident shows it could have been a lot worse.