By Alex McLeod for RugbyPass
Highlanders head coach Tony Brown has vented his frustration at the lack of punishment dished out for repeated infringements after his side lost to the Crusaders in the opening match of Sky Super Rugby Aotearoa.
The 26-13 defeat at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin left Brown questioning how the Crusaders were able to walk away with four points despite a lopsided penalty count that went against the visitors.
The reigning champions were penalised 15 times by referee Ben O'Keeffe, opposed to the eight the Highlanders gave away, as Ethan Blackadder and Scott Barrett both spent time in the sin bin for various infringements.
The temporary dismissals of Blackadder and Barrett lifted the Crusaders' yellow card count to six since last Saturday, with the Christchurch-based franchise picking up four yellow cards in their game-of-three-halves matches against the Blues and Chiefs.
The Highlanders, meanwhile, spent almost a quarter of Friday's match inside the Crusaders' 22 and enjoyed 71.6 per cent of the territory.
However, the southerners weren't able to take anything from the match, and Brown didn't shy away from those figures while speaking to media at the post-match press conference.
"If you look at tonight's game, that's what's sad about rugby at the moment," he said.
"We had 60 per cent possession, 60 per cent territory. We only concede eight penalties, they're conceding 19 penalties and numerous penalty advantages against them and then two yellow cards and they still win. That's the sad thing about footy."
Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson was pleased with how his side kept the Highlanders at bay, though, noting that yellow cards have become common in modern-day rugby.
"We defended really well and then someone would get half a foot in front and you'd get penalised and we'd be in the corner again," he said.
"It was a pretty evil cycle for a long time for us, but it's just the way rugby is now. There's going to be cards – not that we were cynical, it's just a judgement of error about how deep you are, so we've got to be squeaky clean."
When pressed further on the matter and asked whether his side deliberately pushes the letter of the law, Robertson maintained his side doesn't intentionally set out on giving away penalties as a means of thwarting opposition attacks.
"When you're on defence, you're under so much pressure and the ref can pick up a lot of things, so there was no intent behind it."
That, however, is of little consolation to Brown, who said the Crusaders were "potentially" lucky to only have two players sent to the sin bin.
A scuffle between Crusaders prop Joe Moody and Highlanders lock Jack Regan, where the former hit the latter with multiple open-palmed strikes to the face, could be seen as one particular instance where the Crusaders evaded severe punishment.
Brown wouldn't be drawn into commenting on whether he believed Moody's actions warranted a yellow card, but he did suggest the Crusaders have work to do on their discipline.
"Referees are doing their job, but I know they've had five yellow cards in two games, so something's not working."
Robertson agreed with that sentiment as he challenged his side to question how they can "self-discipline better".
Nevertheless, Brown conceded the Crusaders were impressive on defence as they repelled wave after wave of Highlanders attacks as the home side tried and failed to score from their normally effective rolling maul.
"We got lots of penalties, we had a lot of maul opportunities, but the Crusaders were just too strong and we just couldn't execute there," he said.
"Hats off to them. From our side it's frustrating, but from their side they defended really well."