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Yet another big occasion soured

The Lions may not be the Super Rugby champions but they should be lauded for the way they managed to somehow save their final against Crusaders from being completely ruined by the red card that saw them play the entire second half with 14 men.

It is not unheard of for a team to beat even good opposition when reduced to 14 men. But when you lose a man to a red card in a final when you are already down by nine points, it is something that is nigh impossible to come back from.

Full marks to the Lions for the way they simply refused to lie down, and the way they played in the last quarter did change my halftime view, which was that the Crusaders were going to win the game regardless of the red card that was shown to Lions flanker Kwagga Smith in the 38th minute.

When Smith was red carded, the Crusaders were leading by 10 points less than the Hurricanes were leading by at a similar stage of last week’s semifinal.

The Lions came back to win that game handsomely, so many Lions fans would wonder why it couldn’t happen again.

The truth is it could have, but it looked like Crusaders had learnt from the Hurricanes' mistakes.

While the now dethroned champions were frenetic and high tempo in their quest to run the Lions off their feet seven days earlier, and thus ended up running themselves off their own feet, the Crusaders were calmer and more measured.

They made sure they won the battles and points that mattered, and when Smith was carded, they looked well set.

The point though is that we will never know what might have happened had it been 15 against 15 the whole way, with the Lions’ comeback in the last quarter, where they cut a 25-3 deficit to 25-17, leaving enough of a question mark.

Ultimately, it was yet another big game in the modern era overshadowed by a red card, and while the individual player deserves to be sanctioned, you do have to question whether the rest of us, meaning all the stakeholders who had an interest in the game, deserved to be left feeling short-changed.

That was certainly how I felt, and I am sure so did millions of others, including Crusaders fans who might feel that their boasting rights – and what a magnificent achievement it was from their team to win a playoff game at altitude in front of 62 000 fanatical Lions fans – were a little undermined by the red card.

That the red card was the right decision from Jaco Peyper was beyond question.

As all the commentators correctly stressed, he was blowing to the law as it is written, and which he is duty bound to adhere to.

That it was the correct decision was shown by the reaction of both Smith and Lions skipper Jaco Kriel when Peyper told them he was issuing a red card.

You don’t play a man in the air, it is simple as that, and neither Smith nor Kriel complained.

However, it was so pleasing to hear Nick Mallett, in his role as a SuperSport studio analyst, lament what the decision had done to the game and to the occasion.

While it is right that everything possible is done to make the game as safe as possible for the players, there are too many cards in modern rugby and they have the impact of detracting from the package for both the paying spectator and the television viewer.

There are also too many occasions where you end up feeling sorry for the player who is banished. Smith should have pulled out before clashing with the airborne David Havilli, but it all happened in a split second, and everyone was in agreement that there was no malicious intent.

In the old days, a player was banished for a heinous deed, and the Sonny Bill Williams action that saw him get sent off in the second Lions test perhaps did qualify as that.

But these days it also seems that many players are red carded just for making a mistake or an error in judgment.

It happened often in the league phase of the season, but when the red card is the talking point after the showpiece day of the season, that highlights a problem for the sport.

There are too many cards, too many times we see teams playing 15 against 14 for all or part of matches, and the modern trend of teams playing for a yellow card in certain instances shouldn’t sit well with those who are charged with preserving the sanctity of the sport and of the 15 against 15 challenge.

It is high time that the game’s rulers introduce a system that sanctions the player and perhaps empties the bench, but keeps the contest at 15 against 15 except in exceptional circumstances.

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