The laws are fine, the card was correct and the Crusaders are worthy Champions

Brett McKay Columnist

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    It was one of those moments in a game where as soon, as it happened, you could see and hear the conversations starting.

    ‘Ruined the contest’, ‘complete accident’, ‘he can’t disappear’ – the hot takes were flying thick and fast from pretty much the instant Lions flanker Kwagga Smith was shown a red card in the Super Rugby final on Saturday night.

    My immediate thought was that Jaco Peyper and his assistants made the only decision they could, and even then you could hear the resignation in his voice as he worked through all the indicators with TMO Marius Jonker. Peyper didn’t really want to have to make the quite likely match-changing decision, but as he worked through the contest, the contact and the landing, the result was crystal clear.

    “I’m thinking it’s the ultimate sanction,” he offered before Jonker concurred.

    Smith, for his part, looked like he knew it couldn’t end well for him, too. The look on his face as he clattered into Crusaders fullback David Havili’s airborne legs said it all. And neither Smith nor his skipper, Jaco Kriel, attempted to reason with Peyper when called out. They knew what was coming as much as Peyper didn’t want to deliver it.

    But the red card was correct, of that there should be no debate. And it might only be for Havili’s flexibility in landing and bouncing back to his feet that nothing came from the “seriously dangerous position” in which he landed, as Peyper colourfully described it while drawing the red card from his pocket.

    “The rule needs to be looked at, Havili literally jumped into him,” came a reply on Twitter to my stated position that Peyper had got this tough call exactly right.

    Ignoring the idea that Havili would ignore the contest and jump straight into the path of an opposition player’s head and bring whatever consequences that follow onto himself, this could not be left unchallenged.

    The rule (sic) doesn’t need to be looked at because the laws are very clear on this.

    “A player must not tackle an opponent whose feet are off the ground,” says Law 10.4(e), ‘Dangerous play and misconduct’.

    “Tackling the jumper in the air: A player must not tackle nor tap, push or pull the foot or feet of an opponent jumping for the ball in a lineout or in open play,” continues Law 10.4(i).

    (Image: Christiaan Kotze/AFP/Getty Images)

    The Laws of the Game are clear, the laws are known and more importantly, the players know the consequences of their actions – even if accidental – in this instance. And what’s more, such is the (unfortunate) depth of examples and precedent for red cards under this law that we as rugby people all know what looks bad. In this case the only part of the incident that didn’t look bad was Havili’s almost immediate recovery.

    Furthermore, if this type of incident is a red card in Round 2, then it has to be a red card in a final, too; there can’t be allowances to water down a sanction just because of the scale of the game nor any desire to preserve the aesthetics of a contest between two teams.

    And I’ll say this upfront, too: no forthcoming comment today on this incident is going to change my mind, just as no Twitter conversation did in the early hours of Sunday morning. Peyper got it right, pure and simple.

    Sadly there’s no doubt it had an impact on the final result of the game. The Crusaders were certainly well on top by that stage, leading 12-3 just before halftime, but in complete control of the contest.

    For the second week in a row the Lions were cruelling themselves with turnovers and at times horrid execution and decision-making. Aside from his 51-metre penalty ten minutes earlier, Lions flyhalf Elton Jantjies was virtually invisible, unable to get into the game by virtue of the Lions not able to make ground and some pretty ordinary service from scrumhalf Ross Cronje.

    Faced with the prospect of playing the remaining 41 minutes a man down was going to take much more than their miracle comeback against the Hurricanes in the semi-final – though if any team could call on divine intervention, the Lions don’t hide from the fact they have a strong connection with a higher being.

    If He was able to help them get back into the contest – and maybe pilfer a bit of ball and push on the open side of the scrum while He’s there – then praise be to Him indeed.

    (Image: AP Photo/Phil Magakoe)

    Yet the Lions were too slow to react after halftime. I really think it was in those ten or so minutes where the game was lost.

    At the time when the Lions needed to lift their pace and play wide, they stayed narrowly focussed and remained slow. Why Faf de Klerk wasn’t injected into the game at halftime is something only departing coach Johan Ackermann can answer, and while the Lions pondered and dithered, the Crusaders added ten more points and had most of their bench on by the 55th minute.

    When de Klerk finally entered the game in the 61st minute even Lazarus himself would’ve struggled to get back up. But the Lions did manage to find some pace in the game and started asking some serious questions of the Crusaders defence. Jantjies was now into the game and playing a lot better with front foot ball, and two tries in the ten minutes brought the gap back to eight points with seven minutes to go. I know I was starting to think the Lions’ heavenly devotion was starting to pay off at this point.

    From here the champion team of Crusaders confirmed their champion status for 2017. The Lions had three attacking lineouts in the closing stages of the game but ambitiously – ridiculously, really – threw to the back and brought Crusaders skipper Sam Whitelock into the contest, wehich he won of course, as he always tends to in those big moments. Ryan Crotty won the player of the final award, but I’ll wager that Whitelock wasn’t far behind him.

    Ultimately that kind of 80-minute consistency from the Crusaders was the difference between the two sides in what was a really entertaining game despite the numerical disadvantage the Lions found themselves facing.

    I’m not sure I’d go as far as Spiro’s headline suggested yesterday and say that it was a competition-saver, but it was certainly a suitable high water mark for what has been a frustratingly up-and-down season.

    Brett McKay
    Brett McKay

    Brett McKay is one of The Roar's good news stories and has been a rugby and cricket expert for the site since July 2009. Brett is an international and Super Rugby commentator for ABC Grandstand radio, has commentated on the Australian Under-20s Championships and National Rugby Championship live stream coverage, and has written for magazines and websites in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. He tweets from @BMcSport.

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