Sport

Rugby: Yellow card, black Saturday

By Ken Borland 16 September 2013

A disgruntled rugby public spent the weekend contemplating how what should have been a top-class clash between the world's two best rugby nations was ruined by a bungling referee who handed the All Blacks a hollow 29-15 victory over the Springboks at Eden Park in Auckland. By KEN BORLAND.

A monstrous, but perfectly legal, tackle by Bismarck du Plessis was not only penalised by Frenchman Romain Poite but was also deemed worthy of a yellow card in the 16th minute, immediately forcing the Springboks to play catch-up at the All Blacks’ favourite venue. The awful decision would have even more serious ramifications two minutes into the second half when Poite issued another marginal yellow card to the Springbok hooker and best player, which was therefore upgraded to a red card.

Poite is a 38-year-old referee who is not particularly highly regarded by anyone except the International Rugby Board (IRB) referees panel – which is managed by fellow Frenchman Joel Jutge. Last November he even managed to start a French Top 14 game by getting in the way of the kickoff!

He was also the referee for the Springboks’ Test in June against Scotland in Nelspruit, where he allowed a free-for-all at the breakdowns and then issued another ridiculous yellow card – for lock Jim Hamilton shoving Eben Etzebeth in the face – that ended the visitors’ hopes of an upset win.

So Poite would not seem a likely candidate to referee the biggest game in rugby union this year, between the two sides ranked number one and number two. But despite not having the form nor pedigree to handle the situation, he was thrust in the middle of the action.

A baying crowd as Dan Carter left the field with a shoulder injury – New Zealanders seem to believe their golden boy should not be allowed to be tackled – and a fracas after the incident swayed Poite into issuing a yellow card when even a cursory look at the replays he himself called for on the Eden Park big screen would have revealed Du Plessis’s tackle was hard but totally fair – the arm was wrapped high around Carter’s back. The referee also ignored the help of the TMO – as he did several times in Nelspruit as well.

The second offence which Du Plessis was carded for – a forearm into the throat of flank Liam Messam – has probably happened a dozen times this year without being penalised. According to the letter of the law, ball-carriers are not allowed to lead with the arm or elbow, so it was certainly a penalisable offence but one that did not warrant a yellow card.

But in the new game the IRB seem intent on crafting, people fill the stadiums and eagerly watch on TV to follow the referees, not the players.

Referees are more and more becoming the centre of attention – don’t some of them just love it! – and Poite had to ensure that he, not the skills of the two teams involved,  had the maximum impact on the result of the game, and removing South Africa’s one-man wrecking machine was the best way of achieving that.

Contrary to what the IRB, Sanzar and even the South African Rugby Union seem to believe, people are getting sick and tired of the outcome of rugby matches being decided by what the referee does. Every second game this year has been marred by poor decisions. And that’s even when ample technology is available to ensure the correct decision (which just about everyone can see at home) is made.

Having the referee decide who wins the most anticipated match of the year is as bad as discovering systematic doping is being practised by either the Springboks or All Blacks, or even that match-fixing is behind the results. People are just switching off, no longer watching rugby.

Speaking of match-fixing, it is a threat that the IRB does not take seriously at all. Having experienced first-hand how cricket’s reputation was grievously wounded by this scourge, I can only describe rugby as being in blissful denial that it could – and probably does – happen in their sport. Rugby seems to have the same attitude as the president of the football association in Spain – Angel Maria Villar – who last month described Spanish soccer as being “marvellous” when asked about police investigations into match-fixing in their leagues.

Some of the incompetence displayed by referees and TMOs this year – and Poite’s disgraceful efforts this weekend rank proudly amongst those – have had rugby fans’ heads spinning in disbelief. Conspiracy theorists will wonder whether it is just incompetence or whether something more sinister is at play?

Tests between the Springboks and All Blacks generate plenty of interest at the bookmakers and they had plenty to lose if South Africa had won in Auckland because, as the New Zealand Herald reported in the build-up, about six times as much money had been put on the long odds offered for the visitors to win.

While Poite’s dismissal of Du Plessis was the killer blow for the Springboks, he had undermined them with other dubious decisions.

The opening try by Kieran Read was always going to be given after Poite had asked the TMO for “any reason not to award the try” despite replays showing the ball had been held up as the All Blacks eighthman powered over the line.

Bryan Habana was wrongly penalised when Israel Dagg ran into him as they both chased a kick and, shortly before half-time, with the Springboks trailing 10-17, Matt Todd stole the ball 10 metres from his own tryline when his hands were clearly in the ruck.

It’s impossible to say who would have won the game had a decent referee befitting the contest been appointed, but it was never going to be the Springboks once Du Plessis – and Willem Alberts to allow a specialist hooker to come on – had been consigned to the touchline.

Du Plessis, in particular, but also Alberts, Duane Vermeuelen and Tendai Mtawarira were starting to make their presence felt with massive physicality as the Springboks fought their way back from the early try conceded after a poor Habana kick and clever deception at the front of the lineout by the All Blacks.

The Carter tackle happened as the home side were under pressure trying to throw the ball wide way behind the advantage line and the fascinating contrast in styles that the match promised to be never materialised thanks to the referee.

The Springbok scrum – when they had eight men – had the edge on their All Black counterparts, but the South African defence had already been exposed by the opposition’s wonderful running skills.

While the match will be remembered for the furore around the Bismarck du Plessis tackle, his brother Jannie barely seemed able to make a tackle and his defensive woes were shared, to a lesser extent, by Ruan Pienaar and Zane Kirchner.

The scrumhalf’s service was once again inconsistent – the ball lies unattended at the base of rucks far too often – but the fullback did partly redeem himself at the end as he and Pat Lambie combined with breathtaking skill to score the try that briefly ignited the hopes of securing the losing bonus point.

That didn’t happen as Poite penalised the Springboks for obstruction at the kickoff. But the All Blacks had already been gifted their four-try bonus point, which could well decide the outcome of the Rugby Championship as a whole.

Steve Hansen, the All Blacks coach who lacks the wit and charm of his predecessor Graham Henry and is as cynical as the late, high shoulder charge repeat offender Ma’a Nonu assaulted Jean de Villiers with, angrily refuted any suggestions the match had been robbed of its meaning by Poite, instead calling it “a fantastic contest” and saying he had no complaints about it.

What a pity Hansen cannot show the same grace and sportsmanship as Heyneke Meyer and Jean de Villiers, who have steadfastly refused to point fingers at anyone but themselves. He added that he would really hate the Test to be remembered for Bismarck du Plessis’ sending-off.

Well I have news for you, Steve. Nobody is going to remember the match for anything else, much less some impressive rugby played by the All Blacks.

Only their most one-eyed supporters will be reading anything into a game where the opposition was unfairly neutered to the extent that the Springboks were.

Nobody won at Eden Park, certainly not the All Blacks nor the game of rugby as a whole. DM

Photo: Referee Romain Poite of France watches as British and Irish Lions’ Alex Corbisiero scores a try during their third and final rugby union test match against Australia Wallabies’ at ANZ stadium in Sydney, July 6, 2013.   REUTERS/Daniel Munoz

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