I recall a response from then Manchester United Manager Alex Ferguson when questioned about potential favouritism given the number of penalties his side were awarded during the season, when he pointed out that his side were simply in the opposition penalty area more than anyone else.
And so it generally works in rugby union, South Africa’s win column in the run up to the last Rugby World Cup was only challenged when forced into penalty deficit by the All Blacks.
The bottom two England and Italy copped the wrong end of the penalty count in the last Six Nations, both overall and at set piece time.
Italy led the yellow cards table by some distance with seven (we will come back to cards).
In this year’s Australia and Aotearoa competitions, the winning side came out, as expected, on the right side of the penalty count in 70 per cent and 75 per cent of games respectively.
Even these numbers are skewed somewhat to the downside by the ability of both the Brumbies and the Crusaders to win domestic matches where they end up on the wrong side of the penalty count, and let’s face it, both these sides are happier to concede three over seven more than most.
Before examining the outcomes at trans-Tasman level let’s cover the high-level facts of the tournament.
New Zealand sides not only won the game count by 23-2 but also positively dominated the league tables in all the areas where penalties are normally conceded.
The top five ruck retention numbers were all Kiwi sides, only the Force made it into the top six in the tackle percentages and the Brumbies the only Australian side in the top five for lineouts and the top three scrums were all owned by the Shaky Isles inhabitants with the Waratahs the Aussie side in the top five.
So not only did the New Zealand sides dominate the win column but they also performed best in all of the key areas where penalties are predominantly conceded.
Worth noting here for the long-suffering Waratah fans that in the four games where New Zealand sides did not win the ruck retention numbers, it was the Waratahs who upset the trend with three of the four dominant performances on the ground which goes some way to explaining their ability to attack with some pace and directness.
So, I find it interesting that despite the overwhelming dominance of not only outcomes but also the key game components, New Zealand sides still managed to end up on the wrong side of the total penalty count 291-281 and on the wrong side of the card numbers by 17-13. Odd, no?
Never hurts to break it down by refereeing domicile.
When refereeing Australian sides, Australian referees saw their sides win the penalty count five times out of 11.
New Zealand referees favoured their domestic sides in only two of the 14 games they officiated, with two tied.
We know that over time in Super Rugby South African referees favour their sides most, Australian sides get their teams in front of the penalty count next and New Zealand sides marginally referee against their sides, but the number we saw coming out of the trans-Tasman comp seem to defy all logic of our sport, so where did this come from?
A couple of quick examples, when the Highlanders played the Brumbies away, I counted nine red zone penalties and advantages conceded by the home side without a warning even being issued. The Highlanders did score three tries during these visits but surely conceding a score doesn’t reset the offenses clock back to zero, certainly isn’t in the laws, but it wasn’t a oncer.
Another interesting observation is that the Brumbies topped the Australian yellow card count with eight while they were winning but managed to finish with the lowest equal number of cards in trans-Tasman when they were getting beaten four times out of five.
Note, the Crusaders finished top of the yellow card count again in the combined comp.
But this is my personal favourite of the year, Rebels versus Blues, the Rebels are under warning after conceding four penalties in a row on their own try line and then this happens – start at 3.55 on the tape and see if you can spot another defensive penalty, it ain’t.
But even under warning and another obvious infringement, not further action was taken by the New Zealand referee.
Any visit to The Roar’s match day threads, or god forbid a tip toe through twitter on match day would have you believe that the New Zealand referees were slaughtering the Australian teams every week in the Trans-Tasman this year, but the outcomes suggest something very very different.
How this happens is open to any number of conspiracy theories and that is not my primary concern for pointing out all the aforementioned.
What does concern me is how the same referees can have such a different focus on the laws dependent on the participants, last year we saw a massive difference between Australia and New Zealand refereeing with the following Rugby Championship seemingly ignoring the breakdown directives across the board.
Same this year, Kiwi referees in Aotearoa ruled significantly differently in the trans-Tasman and it concerns me that we will go into International season with some new kind of variation in place.
When they eased up on the breakdown laws, and I presume to accommodate the way Au was refereed, the Kiwi sides jumped on it and took advantage, smart but not the outcome I want to see.
But we are not alone, I think we all accept that the referees in the English Premiership have done the best job that the breakdown this year, but then watch how the two English referees performed in the Champions Cups semi and final. Not only were the new directives abandoned in totality but the law book itself seemed to be totally optional. The breakdowns were a complete free for all with offside lines irrelevant.
Are the referees directed where to focus by the administrative body based on whatever comp they are refereeing?, you would sincerely hope not but the evidence on the field seems to suggest otherwise.
I have watched Exeter play a fair bit over the past month and the number of people off feet, sealing off the past the ball at ruck time , and the return of the slower caterpillar ruck, are demonstrably creeping back in, all things I hope the officials jump on quickly.
If we want the game to progress uniformly the world over, we need to take the responsibility for officiating out of the hands of the local administration, so I re-state my earlier call that the top three referees from each country should be centrally contracted to World Rugby and are answerable for their performance only to the senior centralised body.
Otherwise, the focus on officiating performance and perceived bias, not matter how incorrect those claims are, will dominate discussion over the game itself and will simply never going to go away and the variability in performance by geography and competition will continue.