The “red cards ruin matches” brigade were out early in Brisbane on Saturday night; in the fifth minute to be precise, with match officials conspiring to dismiss Marika Koroibete, and seemingly hand the three-match series to France on a platter.
Not only was the match not ruined, (it seldom is), the platform was laid for one of the most memorable Wallabies’ wins in recent memory. It may also prove to be the point at which Dave Rennie’s tenure as coach truly took root, although be prepared for snakes and ladders on the road ahead. Progress is never linear.
After too much side-to-side rugby in Melbourne, the Wallabies were always going to play more directly. But Koroibete’s red card clinched the deal, forcing them into a more attritional type of game.
This played to the Wallabies superior scrum and efficient lineout. And, with ball runners closer in, not running away from support like they did in the second Test, it prompted a far more physical and effective cleanout. With the ruck turnover count down, and cleaner ball for the halfback, the Wallabies were able to not only secure better field position, but this time maintain it for longer periods.
Only once did France take full toll of their numerical advantage, Baptiste Couilloud darting blindside at a defensive scrum, sparking a brilliant try for Pierre-Louis Barrassi that should live long in the memory of those who saw it.
For the most part however, the Wallabies played the match on their terms; a tribute to the ability of all players to dig in while a man down, but also testimony to the ‘from the front’ leadership of Michael Hooper, a player whose stature has grown throughout this series.
There were others. Lukhan Salakaia-Loto has finally found his rightful home at lock, and the right front-row balance seems to have been struck. As tough as that is for Taniela Tupou, his best Test performances have come from the bench.
It’s a fair bet that Reece Hodge, not a true winger, would not have expected to play 79 minutes of the match, not only covering one wing, but two! His combative effort should not be downplayed, although spare a thought for Filipo Daugunu, not even getting his shorts dirty before slapping his wrist into the wrong place.
As for France, keen television watchers who might remember finance guru Mark Bouris hosting the Australian version of ‘The Apprentice’ from 2011-2015, could be excused for doing a double-take at French coach Fabien Galthie – with or without designer welding goggles.
Galthie is not your typical national coach. Following his side’s win in Melbourne, sporting trendy white brogues, sans socks, he halted the press conference to instruct the small group of journalists present to pass on his regards to George Gregan.
He then proceeded to hold up the Australian presser by conducting a lengthy zoom conference with French journalists that, according to an interpreter, consisted largely of him sticking it to his critics, justifying his squad selection, and celebrating his young charges repaying his faith in them.
Eccentric or otherwise, Galthie has formed a highly effective coaching unit with Laurent Labit and Shaun Edwards. His youthful squad has played with organisation, composure and a growing understanding of what Test rugby is about; albeit opportunities to exit their 22 in the second half were squandered.
They go home losers – narrow losers – but with the satisfaction that players like Couilloud, Melvyn Jaminet and Cameron Woki and others from their recently successful Under 20 World Cup campaigns, will ensure that France will have an impressively deep squad for their home World Cup, in 2023.
So then, what to make of the talking point, the inadvertent making of the Wallabies, Koroibete’s red card?
Watching live, supported by initial replays, it seemed that Koroibete had pummelled French captain Anthony Jelonch with a hard, but fair tackle. That too, was referee Ben O’Keefe’s first assessment.
Two other angles were less convincing, showing Jelonch’s head snapping backwards, with the suggestion that this was a result of contact with Koroibete’s shoulder.
“Direct contact with the head”, said assistant referee, Brendan Pickerill, and that was Koroibete’s night done.
Regular readers of this column will know that this was a moment that has been waiting to happen in a big match. But as explosive as the outcome was, the problem, and solution, is actually far less complex than what it might appear.
In the past, send-offs in Test rugby were rare, reserved for instances of egregious foul play. Now, with the concussion issue rightfully at the forefront of the design and application of rugby’s laws, tolerances have tightened, and what was once black and white has become grey.
Contact to the neck or head carries heavy sanctions, but the ability to determine exactly how, where and if that contact actually occurs, keeping in mind that the head invariably throws backwards no matter where the actual point of contact is, has not kept pace.
The core issue has little to do with so-called mitigating circumstances or the theatrical reaction of victims, but a flawed process. On one hand we have a definitive sanction – banishment from the game, and the suspension and stigma that follows – while on the other, we have an indistinct, hazy basis by which these rulings are applied.
The match officials have been tasked with playing judge and jury, while being provided as evidence, one-dimensional images on a big stadium screen, that they view only a couple of times, under intense public pressure.
Anyone who watches cricket closely knows that what might look like a conclusive edge or glove from the front-on view, is often proven to be anything but, when viewed in a different plane.
What Pickerill and referee Ben O’Keefe should have determined is that from some views it looked like a legal tackle, from other views it looked potentially like there was some contact with the head, but… they couldn’t be certain.
Rugby league’s officiating of high contact is a dog’s breakfast and, taken as a whole, its deficiencies are nothing for rugby to aspire to. But if rugby is going to continue to insist upon protecting the heads of players by holding players to account for any contact near the neck or head – as it surely must – then placing these types of instances ‘on report’ for closer examination later, as in rugby league, must be the way to go.
Without watering down consequences for offending players, another useful outcome would be to help take the in-match focus away from the officials, to help prevent ‘the mob’ switching off in disgust, or losing their heads by demanding a square-up for their team, all in the name of supposed consistency.
In that context, Couilloud’s try, where he steamrollered over the top of Tate McDermott, would have been seen for what it was: hard, physical Test rugby. Note how, when not viewed through the lens of having just had your best back sent off, Couilloud’s right arm, the one not carrying the ball, never extends out from his body, to strike McDermott, nor is direct contact made with McDermott’s head.
Another recurring theme for this column – the spectre of unwanted TMO involvement – raised its head in Hamilton, with a kick-off out-on-the-full decision turned around, after All Blacks captain Sam Whitelock protested to referee Damon Murphy, pointing to a big-screen replay, to support his case.
Assistant referee Jordan Way got his original call wrong, and the correct outcome was eventually achieved. But the question remains: why use a replay to fix this wrong decision, when multiple other questionable decisions in the match go untested?
Where do these interventions start and finish? Who controls what is replayed on the big screen and what isn’t? What is the purpose of having laws and guidelines if the officials ignore them?
Current guidelines for match officials clearly state that TMO involvement is to be restricted to try scoring situations and cases of foul play. But a kick that may or may not have gone out on the full? Whitelock should have been told to get his eyes off the screen, get on with the game and, if he needed an apology, been offered one over a beer, afterwards.
One thing we learned from New Zealand’s 60-13 victory is that two-try Samisoni Taukei’aho is only half the player Dane Coles is. Thankfully, the good half.
Like their next opponent, the Wallabies, the All Blacks also tightened up control of their attacking breakdown, and with Ardie Savea’s return providing plenty of ‘go forward’, coach Ian Foster should be happy with how his side handled Fiji; an extremely competitive and combative opponent.
Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed an interesting article that appeared on-line last Monday, by The Australian’s Will Swanton, entitled, “The Wallabies, Australia’s Forgotten Sports Team.”
Swanton’s premise was to question rugby’s relevance on the Australian sporting landscape, a theme pushed by other News Limited writers, outlining how Australian rugby has fallen from the highs of the 1984 grand slam, the 1991 and 1999 World Cup wins, and peak interest coinciding with hosting the 2003 World Cup.
As if to highlight rugby’s irrelevance, News Limited’s Saturday papers listed the major sporting events taking place over the weekend, and their start times. The list included events such as a T20 match between England and Pakistan, qualifying for the F1 British Grand Prix, Supercar racing from Townsville, and an NBA play-off game between the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks.
The third Test between the Wallabies and France? The deciding match in a tight, thrilling series? Zippo. In short, if it wasn’t on Foxtel, it didn’t happen.
What Swanton should have written, more accurately, is that the Wallabies are Australia’s forgotten sports team, as far as his employer is concerned.
With Foxtel no longer the broadcasting rights holder for rugby, coverage of the sport in News’ print media has dried up, marked by the departure of Australia’s leading rugby writer, Wayne Smith.
It is of course News Limited’s prerogative to cover any sport in the manner which best suits its commercial and editorial objectives. But there are outcomes that are concerning.
Politically, media has become increasingly polarised. People engage with the media that makes them feel comfortable, that reinforces their global view, that aligns them with team red, blue or green, or a community of the like-minded.
Even if this was desirable (it isn’t), sport has, until now, remained in some kind of UN de-militarised zone; apolitical and covered on its merits by media organisations from all sides of the political spectrum.
Those days have gone. Sport now resides in silos. Rugby in Australia now sits with Nine/Stan. Accordingly, print media coverage in Nine’s newspapers increases, and coverage in the News Limited newspapers diminishes, or becomes hostile.
Rugby Australia yesterday announced peak viewing numbers for the third Test of 952,000, and average viewership of 691,000, on Nine’s main channel alone (excluding those who watched on 9Now or Stan Sport). These numbers represent a level of engagement profoundly advanced on those achieved by the previous combination of Fox Sports and Ten.
Swanton is an accomplished sports writer. He is not so naive to know that his article should have carried a qualification. And now, with respect to the “forgotten sports team” tag, a correction.