You know a rugby issue is serious when All Blacks coach Steve Hansen intervenes with a statement from on high.
So the rugby world pricked its ears last week when Hansen commented this way about the curious fact that, with South African referees and playing at home, the Lions had won their last three matches with a combined penalty count of 43-6 in their favour:
“I don’t know any team that’s only given six penalties away in three games. I’m not saying the penalties they’re giving aren’t right, but they’re obviously missing a few.”
It is hard to disagree with Hansen’s statement.
In fact those of us with long memories about what has happened in the past with Australian sides in South Africa could embellish Hansen’s comment with some scarifying details.
There was a lot of other commentary too about a curious decision from South African television match official Marius Jonker that denied the Crusaders a try, probably the winning try, in their drawn match at Cape Town against the Stormers.
Crusader Braydon Ennor made a break and passed to flying winger Sevu Reece to run through and score.
The referee, Nic Berry, along with fellow Australian Angus Gardiner, a designated referee for the 2019 Rugby World Cup tournament, immediately awarded a try.
Then came a remarkable intervention from Jonker. “I’m going to show you a forward pass,” he told Berry.
Jonker showed a couple of replays that revealed the pass was not forward. He then doubled-down on his original assertion even though the replays showed the ball being released backwards by Ennor.
“So, we have a forward pass, it’s clear and obvious evidence of a forward pass.”
I use the word ‘remarkable’ because the very wording used by Jonker forced Berry to agree with him. Which he did with obvious reluctance.
It is hardly surprising that Jonker was dropped from his duties for the round of matches over the weekend. It remains a mystery, though, why he has not been dropped from the TMOs panel for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan as well.
What Jonker did was unacceptable. The very wording of his intervention essentially begged the question of whether the pass was forward or not. It is not the job of the TMO to force the referee to agree with his own contentious version of what did or did not happen.
Now, in our house we make a point of watching Dr Michael Mosley’s TV programme Trust Me, I’m a Doctor. In the programme Dr Mosley does small investigations into what remedies doctors recommend and how effective they are. The investigations are less rigorously scientific and more anecdotal in their nature, but they do give a quick and useful overview of contentious practices and remedies.
So I thought I would look at some of last weekend’s matches with a sort of ‘Trust me, I’m a referee and TMO analyst’ approach.
The first match to be examined is the Sharks versus Lions encounter at Durban.
This was an away match for the Lions, the first after their remarkable virtually penalty-free series of home matches. The referee was a South African, Marius van der Westhuizen, and the TMO, Christie du Preez, was also a South African.
The Sharks, a team that has lost four of its six matches at home this year, defeated the Lions comfortably, 27-17. This stopped a run of three Lions wins.
The penalty count was eight penalties conceded by each of the teams.
It is interesting that this relatively low penalty count against the Lions in an away match represented two more penalties than they had conceded in total in their three previous winning home matches.
Marius van der Westhuizen was a calm and effective referee. He was in control at all times and encouraged the players occasionally with calls of “great scrum” and “great turnover”.
Now we move to the Stormers versus Highlanders match at Cape Town, which was refereed (splendidly) by Nic Berry, the referee of the contentious (no fault of his) match two weekends ago between the Stormers and the Crusaders.
Berry made it clear throughout the match that he was not going to be railroaded into making a home-town decision if he believed it was not a correct one.
There was a compelling moment that tested his resolve when the Stormers ‘scored’ a try from a kick and chase in which it appeared that the chaser was slightly offside when the kick-through was made.
When Berry, who was right up with the play, noted this, the TMO, Willie Vos, a South African, told him: “There is no compelling evidence” why a try shouldn’t be awarded. When Berry asked for another camera angle he was told by Vos that there were no other angles.
Finally a shot was shown that revealed that Berry was correct and that the chaser was offside when starting to chase down the ball to the try line.
“Looking to be in front, Willie,” Berry said when the shot was shown. Vos agreed with Berry.
Berry was also very quick to declare a yellow and not a red card when Matt Faddes lifted Damian de Allende ‘above the horizontal’.
I’m wondering now whether Vos will be stood down next week following the Jonker precedent.
Nic Berry made it clear that he is not going to be manipulated by TMOs who might try to convince him into making a decision he feels is not the correct one.
The penalty count in the match was eight conceded by the Stormers and seven conceded by the Highlanders, a terrific difference from the lopsided counts that South African referees have been awarding against overseas teams playing the Lions at Johannesburg.
This rather even penalty count by a neutral referee in a match involving a home side and an away side led me to consult my notes on a similar match, the Waratahs playing in Sydney against the Jaguares.
The referee for the match was Paul Williams, a New Zealander, so we had, as was the case with the Stormers versus Highlanders match, a neutral referee in charge.
The Jaguares won 23-15 and were the dominant team for most of the match. The penalty count was six penalties conceded by each side. A penalty try and yellow card for the offending player was awarded against the Jaguares. But there was no sense of any home-side advantage. There was not even a sniff of it in the even-handed and pleasant control that Williams exercised.
The Jaguares totally dominated the first half and virtually won the match in these 40 minutes. The Waratahs came back in the second half but their play lacked flair and pace.
The thought struck me as I watched yet another recent Waratahs defeat that Michael Hooper showed no class or rugby intelligence when he said he didn’t want to play rugby again with Israel Folau. The Waratahs clearly need Folau’s diversity of talents on and off the field.
A third match, this time involving a New Zealand referee, Nick Briant, a designated assistant referee at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, but again featuring two sides from other countries, the home side Sunwolves (7) and the Rebels (52), is also worth a look.
The penalty count went against the Sunwolves, the vastly inferior side on the day, 9-15. The Rebels achieved their highest score out of Melbourne.
Now we look at two matches for which the referee was not a neutral but refereeing an away match involving a team from his own country. In Canberra for the Brumbies versus Bulls match the referee was South African Jaco Peyper. The Brumbies won 22-10, putting on, as Morgan Turinui explained, “a complete performance”.
When teams play well and showcase their skills the referee deserves some of the credit. Peyper, a referee who occasionally becomes obsessed with protecting rolling mauls, exercised a practised control over the match. He let it flow, which was in fact to the advantage of the Brumbies, who unveiled their all-field game to good advantage.
The Brumbies were penalised ten times and the Bulls nine times.
Finally, we take a quick look at the first round of the match, the Chiefs (19) against the Reds (13) at Hamilton. The referee was Australian Angus Gardiner. The penalty count was 15 conceded by the Chiefs to two conceded by the Reds.
At first glance this statistic seems to suggest some sort of payback by an Australian referee against the side playing against an Australian team, but this was not the case. The lopsided penalty count reflected the lopsided way the game panned out, with the Reds being in possession and on the attack virtually throughout the entire match and the Chiefs hanging on desperately.
The Chiefs made over 240 tackles – three tackles every minute of the match!
The Reds were twice overruled on tries by the TMO, New Zealander Glenn Newman, but his decisions were correct in both instances. Ironically, his decision to overrule a Chiefs try was, it seemed to me, not correct.
The very promising Chiefs winger Etene Nanai-Seturo had plunged over the try line and planted the ball with one hand. The on-field ruling from Gardner was for a try. This meant that “clear and obvious evidence” had to be found by Newman to overrule Gardner’s decision. Newman did this by finding a slow-motion frame shot that revealed a possible separation of hand and ball before it was planted on the ground.
When photography was first started viewers were amazed to see that a galloping horse shot in slow-motion had all four hooves off the ground from time to time. I reckon that a number of one-hand plants involve, just before the ball hits the ground, a tiny separation from the hand. It is technically very difficult to plant a ball one-handed from any sort of height without some separation. Just think about it.
Curiously, in the Crusaders versus Blues match at Christchurch, the TMO New Zealander Aaron Paterson tried to disallow a Reiko Ioane try for the same reason of separation. Ioane had his hand curled around the ball, but Paterson somehow discovered – in his eyes anyway – the slightest of separations. The try was allowed. Shots were shown of Ioane expressing bewilderment, with hand motions, at the suggestion he may have dropped the ball.
Putting on my Dr Spiro hat to detail our little experiment, I would make these points.
First, neutral referees are the preferred option for all Super Rugby matches.
Second, if we can’t have neutral referees, Sanzaar should try to balance out the home-ground advantage by appointing referees from the same country as the visiting team.
Third, if we can’t have TMOs from with a degree of neutral status, they should at least try not to bully referees and stick to picking up foul play and off-the-ball play and leave the refereeing to the referees and their assistants on the sideline.
Finally, the Lions go back to their home den, Emirates Airlines Park, next weekend to play the Stormers.
It will be interesting to see how many penalties they concede against a South African rather than a visiting side.