Watching Sunday’s gripping Rugby World Cup quarter final between Australia and South Africa was a tense, exciting, but frustrating experience.
The Australian media post match has lauded the Wallabies with praise for their courageous defense and attitude, and touted that the Springboks will lament their inability to take their opportunities.
What strikes me about this is the apparent inability for anyone to acknowledge how completely inadequate Bryce Lawrence’s refereeing performance was and how it shaped the result of the game, much more than the performance of the lackluster Wallabies.
How can a team take their opportunities when so few are handed to them by the referee, despite glaring instances of illegal play in key areas of the field after long multi-phase passages.
The Wallabies only remained in this game as a result of Lawrence’s seeming ignorance of the rules at the breakdown. David Pocock might have had a fantastic game, but only because he was allowed to exploit the breakdown in a way that was supposed to be outlawed three years ago.
Never in my life have I watched a test match where a team so deserving of a win managed to lose as a result of their attacking advances being stifled by a referee so allowing of an openside flanker to so blatantly dominate the ruck through what was, by the most part, completely illegal play according to the laws of the game.
I have to feel for the Boks. They will be going home knowing that they did everything they could, destroyed their opposition in almost every facet of the game and yet, due to the Wallabies adapting to the referee and successfully executing multiple examples of negative play, they came up short.
Don’t get me wrong, the Wallabies deserve credit for their exceptional defense and their ability to adapt to the referee, and as a result of that Pocock deserved the MOM, but my argument here is that there is a fundamental flaw in the fact that a game of rugby can hinge so heavily on the way it is refereed and how a team adapts to that, instead of the way they deal with their opposition.
When test rugby stops being about the 15 warriors from one nation going out there to outwit, out-muscle and dominate the 15 warriors of an opposing nation, we are facing a serious problem.
You could not possibly convince me that the Wallabies didn’t get away with murder at the breakdown inside their own 22, nor that they outplayed the Boks in any way outside of their manipulation at the breakdown, which only came as a result of that area of the game not being policed accurately.
The statistics speak volumes about how this game played out, which is not often the case, and even the breakdown steals stats show how much the Wallabies got away with.
The current interpretation of the laws of the breakdown were implemented post-2007 Rugby World Cup and shortly after the ELV disaster, in order to restore more traditional tactics, punishment for negative play and laws which encouraged expansive, running rugby which would hopefully, in turn, produce more tries.
This was in the wake of a World Cup and a period in time where test rugby was often stifled by players killing the ball inside the 22, happy to give away three points because it was better than seven, resulting in kicking battles as opposed to exhibitions of running rugby that the public so desperately desired.
So the IRB decided to try and de-power the role of the openside flank and the tackler by saying that once the tackle had been made, there must be daylight between tackled player, the ball and the tackler/tackle assist, allowing the tackled player to play the ball before they may attempt to contest for it on the ground.
This rule, or ‘interpretation’ as the IRB have coined it, was not implemented on Sunday evening. There were many examples of the Wallabies killing the ball in the 22 as well as many other areas of the field from offside positions, or when they weren’t entitled to play the ball where a ruck had been formed.
Even the Wallabies’ try came from a ridiculously obvious piece of illegal entry as well as handling of the ball on the deck and it all happened right in front of Bryce Lawrence’s nose.
It goes without saying that the Boks got away with a bit here and there as well, but they didn’t need to get away with much, because they had the ball for the best part of three quarters of the match. It would be very hard to argue that Lawrence’s lack of conviction in officiating the breakdown affected the Wallabies equally, let alone more than it did the Boks.
It is a mystery how Lawrence was even handed the QF, seeing as he openly apologised for a myriad of bad calls he made against the Wallabies when they played Ireland. But at least in that game, the Wallabies were outplayed in most areas and lost. Here, they were outplayed, out muscled, tactically dominated and yet, they won.
If rugby is to become a game where the dominant team is not given the tools to construct a victory, despite falling victim to blatant negative tactics by their opposition, because each different referee polices the breakdown (or any key area of the game for that matter) in a different manner, then I shall lose my eternal passion for the game and cease watching a once great sport.
Lawrence and future referees who deliver equally inadequate performances should be reviewed and punished by being forced to referee at a lower level until they can prove they actually know the laws at the breakdown.
The IRB must review the structure of the laws of the game, in order to ensure at least to some degree, that every game has a consistency about the way it is officiated, refereeing should have little to do with ‘interpretation’ of a written law.
Let’s hope the semis aren’t hindered by further examples of this and may the best team lift the Webb Ellis Cup as a result of playing better rugby, not their ability to exploit a referee’s inadequacies.
Huge respect must be paid to all of those Springbok players who competed in their last test match on Sunday. They were part of one of the most successful eras of South African rugby history, and despite being bundled out in 2011, did themselves proud in that quarter final, which will unfortunately, to my mind, be one of the best test matches that was never allowed to be properly contested.
To say the Boks deserved to win would be wrong, considering that this is how it is, but to say they deserved to lose would be equally unjust.
Here’s to the (hopefully more consistent and accurate) future of test rugby.