The Blitzboks lost to New Zealand in the final of the Wellington Sevens over the weekend, but it is not their epic on-field performance that had everyone’s tongues wagging. Dubious refereeing got under the skin of many South African fans and raised some questions about the consistency in officiating in these tournaments. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
The Blitzboks came agonisingly close to claiming their second title of the Sevens season with a narrow 24-21 loss in the Wellington leg of the Sevens tournament. Making it to the final was still enough to put South Africa two points clear of the overall Sevens log, but fans were left feeling irked by a few officiating calls. A professional foul by Rosko Speckman as well as well as a pass being called forward to deny the Blitzboks a Cheslin Kolbe try, left social media raging following the defeat.
South Africa were 14-7 up at the break and were at 21-14 when a yellow card for Speckman gave the All Blacks an extra man on the field: they made it count, scoring thrice in the last three minutes to snatch the comeback win.
The forward call was dubious and stirred plenty of debate. While poor decisions happen in all sports, this incident ruffled a few more feathers than usual. The referee in question, Matt O’Brien is the son of former international referee and IRB referee boss Paddy O’Brien, who is also currently in charge of the Sevens match officials. It has left many to question whether this is why officials have been mum on the call, especially when considering the way South Africa’s Craig Joubert was thrown under the bus during the World Cup last year.
It also was not the first time over the weekend that a referee had made seemingly dubious calls against South Africa. On Saturday, former Springbok Brendan Venter had some stern words on Twitter when New Zealand and the Blitzboks met in the group stages. He asked “What is his name and where does he come from. Not just 1 call. 6. 3 in the last play. Match fixing? He must be investigated.”
Venter added that the “ref kept making bad calls” and suggested that not one call went the Blitzboks way. “In my book, it’s called cheating,” he added.
During this specific clash, referee Mike Adamson awarded three times as many penalties to New Zealand compared to the Blitzboks, and a controversial call in the dying minutes added fuel to the fire. SuperSport.com described the incident as such: Ben Lam was held up by three Springbok sevens players in his own 22, dragged backwards only for the melee to collapse, but Adamson awarded a penalty to New Zealand for the Blitzboks not rolling away. Debate centred around whether the incident should have been classed as a maul.
From that penalty, New Zealand launched their final attack of the game and won 24-21. A jaw-dropping offload from Sonny Bill Williams was the catalyst for that try, and while it was one of those “once in a tournament” things, it didn’t make it easier for armchair critics to accept.
The final offered a chance at redemption, but instead, it simply brought more frustration for the Blitzboks and their supporters; it also raises questions over how rugby’s laws are interpreted and the lack of consistency in officiating.
Like with some moments during the Rugby World Cup last year, it does once again raise the question whether the third-match official should be able to intervene in certain decisions made on the field if they feel a bad call has been made. The problem with this is that a number of rugby’s rules are open for interpretation and leaves room for human error. Whatever happens in any fixture, there will always be a few “what ifs” in terms of officiating calls, and while South Africa were on the receiving end this time around, they do have plenty of positives to take out of their weekend in Wellington.
The Blitzboks’ defence was much improved compared to the Cape Town leg of the event. They had conceded just one try to Scotland on day one before their crunch meeting with New Zealand. South Africa also saw off old rivals, Fiji, in the semi-finals with a 31-0 victory, a feat coach Neil Powell described as special.
“To beat Fiji in that manner and to keep them scoreless is unbelievable. The boys deserve credit for that special performance,” the coach said.
Even more important was the testing of the squad’s depth. Justin Geduld and Juan de Jong were both out injured while a number of other stalwarts did not play. During the Cape Town Sevens, chemistry was severely lacking and decision making was often questionable. However, the Blitzboks seem to be slowly ironing out those creases and if the mix of newbies and old hands can continue to gel, there is no reason why they shouldn’t start fixing their eyes on this season’s title.
“It was important for us to see how we would perform without regulars such as Frankie Horne, Kyle Brown, Cecil Afrika and Werner Kok. We also lost Ryno Benjamin on the eve of the tournament, so it was very pleasing to see the guys playing so well in Wellington,” said Powell.
That South Africa remained clinical in defence and ruthless in their finishing despite the absence of their playmakers will go a long way in fine-tuning their preparations ahead of the Rio Olympics later in the year.
With such a big squad to choose from, none of the players who have been brought in from the 15-man game can take anything for granted. Francois Hougaard admitted to MyPlayers.co.za that making the Rio squad is something everyone is thinking about.
“As a team and a squad, we’re taking everything one game at a time. But behind everyone’s mind is the prospect of playing at the Olympic Games later this year,” said Hougaard.
“Making that final squad is not going to be easy. You have to prove your worth and like competing for a spot in a Rugby World Cup squad, there are no second chances. It’s going to be a tough challenge and I’m here to give it my all. Representing my country is something I’m really proud of.
“I’m more motivated now than ever… when you’re having fun and enjoying your game, that’s when things go really well.”
The World Series now moves to Sydney, next weekend, where the Blitzboks will face Scotland, Russia and Kenya in the group stages. After their showing over the weekend, expectations will be high both from the squad and the officials. DM
Photo: South Africa’s Seabelo Senatla scores a try against Samoa during their men’s rugby sevens medal semi-final at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland, July 27, 2014. REUTERS/Russell Cheyne.