Patrick McKendry is a rugby and boxing writer for the Herald.

Luatua's red card and ban fine but consistency is key

Steven Luatua was shown a red card for a high tackle against the Chiefs by referee Ben O'Keeffe. Photo/Photosport
Steven Luatua was shown a red card for a high tackle against the Chiefs by referee Ben O'Keeffe. Photo/Photosport

Blues loose forward Steven Luatua, hit with a four-week ban for his off-the-ball high tackle on Chiefs wing Tim Nanai-Williams, will likely take his punishment with good grace because, as coach Tana Umaga said afterwards, he can't say he wasn't warned.

Yet, he has reason to be disappointed with Sanzaar, and here's where it gets trickier for Super Rugby's governing body. Stricter penalties for tackles above the shoulder in the form of yellow and reds cards, plus suspensions, is fine as long as the law is applied equally.

The key is consistency, and after two rounds Sanzaar's officials appear to have dropped the ball already.

Luatua's red card just before halftime at Waikato Stadium effectively ended the match as a contest. He has no excuses. He sent a message apologising to Nanai-Williams afterwards, for which he received a cheeky reply, and the big flanker received abuse and an apology himself on social media by a misguided supporter.

After the match Umaga admitted referee Ben O'Keeffe's decision was the right one.

But when Highlanders fullback Richard Buckman tackled Crusaders replacement loose forward Jed Brown around the neck in the frantic, dying minutes of their thrilling match at Forsyth Barr stadium a day later, no action was taken against him either by referee Paul Williams or by Sanzaar's citing officials.

A mitigating factor might have been Malakai Fekitoa's yellow card for his mid-air collision with David Havili immediately beforehand, but it shouldn't have been.

Highlanders centre Fekitoa left the field with just more than seven minutes remaining, an absence which contributed to his team's 30-27 defeat after they led 27-6 at one point.

By rights, Buckman probably should have followed him after an extraordinary run of play which included another, clearly accidental mid-air collision between Highlanders' first-five Lima Sopoaga and Crusaders loose forward Jordan Taufua, which left the latter injured.

Under the laws, there is no room for allowing dangerous or foul play out of sympathy for a team's position. In other words, there is no limit to how many players can be carded.

World Rugby's directive, in place since January 3, states that players' heads, rightly, are sacrosanct. The minimum sanction for a high tackle, even if it starts below the shoulders, is a yellow card. The maximum is a red one.

At the time, New Zealand Rugby's manager of rugby Neil Sorenson welcomed the new, harsher measures, saying: "As a game, we have all committed to doing what we can to make the game as safe as possible and these are sensible adjustments in line with our attitude towards managing contact around the head."

That's good, no arguments there. But with harsher penalties on high tackles comes a greater importance for the officials to rule all as equally serious.

Luatua will rue his serious lack of judgement in the Blues' 41-26 defeat.

Buckman, in for the injured Ben Smith and likely to start against the Blues at Eden Park on Saturday, is lucky not be doing the same.

- NZ Herald

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