Midweek Fixture: Referees will decide the Rugby World Cup, they always do

Publish Date
Thursday, 15 November 2018, 8:52AM
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Getty Images

By: Dylan Cleaver

Here's what I'm not going to do: I'm not going to spend all column arguing the rights and wrongs of the decision to disallow Sam Underhill's "try" against the All Blacks.

Some very fine British rugby writers have made themselves look silly by claiming there wasn't clear evidence that Courtney Lawes was offside at the ruck that led to him charging down TJ Perenara, an act that sent Underhill rumbling down the Cabbage Patch while discombobulating the defensive angles of Beauden Barrett.

If Lawes wasn't offside, then climate change is a hoax and Magellan's ship did in fact tip over the edge of a flat Earth and we're all slaves to a fake-science conspiracy.

Once Marius Jonker was asked to rule on that phase of play by Jerome Garces, a referee held in no fond regard by New Zealanders after last year's Lions series, he had little choice but to acknowledge the infringement.

Whether he should ever have been asked to look at the replay is moot, and therein lay the more logical English grievance. Even New Zealanders, the ones whose mood doesn't sit on a bell curve reflected by rugby results, could see poetic justice in the All Blacks being beaten that way after an afternoon pockmarked by wretched box kicking.

The English could also feel justifiably peeved by a non-decision even later in proceedings. As spotted by my eagle-eyed colleague Patrick McKendry, in the game's dying moments with England in possession and on attack, replacement prop Ofa Tu'ungafasi tackles an England player and makes no attempt to release him. It is, by rugby's arcane standards, a clear and obvious infringement that would have given the hosts a gilt-edged opportunity for three points.

This could be an endless game of suit and counter-suit but it is futile. What is more interesting is the idea that one of these game-defining TMO decisions or non-decisions could alter the course of next year's World Cup in Japan.

Uh, hello? Where have you been these last 30 years or so?

With a minimum of research, let's count the "clear and obvious" ways world cups have been affected by officials.

Let's start in the misty recesses of time at a little place called Concord Oval in Sydney's inner west. France won a pulsating semifinal with a sensational Serge Blanco try five minutes into injury time. It's still considered by many to be the greatest World Cup match ever played.

The try should never have stood.

French lock Alain Lorieux was a mile offside from Patrice Lagisquet's centring kick, Laurent Rodriguez knocked the ball on before making the final pass to Blanco, who was quite possibly in touch before he dotted down.

Let's skip the drudgery of 1991 and move on to South Africa where the narrative remains that rugby – a divisive sport in South Africa's troubled history – is finally united after its charismatic black leader Nelson Mandela wears the Springbok jersey of Afrikaner captain Francois Pienaar.

History is written by the winners, right, so far less attention is given to extremely fortunate circumstances in which they made the final. Welsh referee Derek Bevan denied France's Abdel Benazzi what looked a clear try in the dying minutes of their semifinal and South Africa clung on 19-15. (Bevan, to his embarrassment, would later be awarded a gold watch by South African rugby supremo Louis Luyt.)

Whereas Bevan was never one to concede mistakes, at least Paddy O'Brien had the good grace to admit to his portfolio of poor decisions that cost Fiji any hope of victory in a 19-28 loss to France in 1999. How might that World Cup had been turned on its head is Fiji scored a deserved upset.

Four years later, Mils Muliaina was unfortunate to have an early try ruled out that could have changed the course of the All Blacks semifinal against Australia. In the final, South African Andre Watson almost single-handedly kept the Wallabies pack in the match against a much tougher England eight, though the right result probably occurred in both matches.

Remember Cardiff, 2007? Of course you do. The ludicrous yellow card against Luke McAlister; the pass from Damien Traille to Freddie Michalak that was only slightly less forward than Joe Montana's famous completion to Dwight Clark; France's "flawless" discipline for the entire second half.

Moving on…

The All Blacks got a measure of revenge against France in the 2011 final when Craig Joubert appeared to ignore obvious offences by Andrew Hore and Jerome Kaino as the hosts clung to a sphincter-clenching 8-7 lead.

Last time around the same ref beat a hasty retreat after gifting a late penalty in a certain Australia-Scotland quarter-final.

The point of this trip down memory lane is not to shame refs, who have a nigh-on-impossible job, or even to relitigate injustice.

It is to highlight the fact every Rugby World Cup has turned on one or two big calls. The next one will too, no doubt.

The only worthwhile debate is the mechanism you use to try to minimise the poor decisions.

Video technology is not going away. The notion that we can go back to the good old days where the referee's word is final is silly on two counts: the old days weren't that good; and every mug sitting on his couch now has access to 12 different, near instantaneous replays so why wouldn't you afford the refs the same luxury.

How you determine what warrants a replay is the conundrum.

Every wrong decision hypothetically affects the outcome of a match, whether it is a missed crooked throw to a lineout in the first minute or the wrongful award of a try in the 76th. Clearly you can't revisit every decision or point of contention or else you wouldn't be reading this right now, you'd still be watching the final minutes of the All Blacks-England test.

ut there has to be a more elegant way of combining the resources of the officials to act in real-time to the grievances of the teams.

It has been suggested that rugby adopts a NFL-type system where the coaches can challenge what they think were poor decisions. It is an interesting concept, though the fragmented nature of American football makes it easier to adopt than rugby, where you can go minutes between stoppages.

Would the challenges only apply to point-scoring plays, or would you be able to revisit decisions around yellow cards and foul play, which could ultimately have a far greater bearing on the result?

Or we could keep muddling along as is, placing the onus for decision-making and reviews on officials that are already under siege on a weekly basis.

Whatever way World Rugby chooses to go you can be pretty sure of one thing: about this time next year, there will be at least one team struggling to get over the fact their World Cup was ended by a refereeing error.

Plus ça change ... [ The more it changes ... ]


The All Blacks could use a signature performance this weekend in Dublin. Sure, they get to sign off 2018 with a flourish in Rome but Italy are so weak and absent of enterprise that the result will be meaningless beyond a pithy entry in the next edition of Men in Black.

For all intents and useful purposes, the season climaxes in Dublin on Sunday against a team the World Rugby super-computer determines to be the second best in the world.

The All Blacks record against good teams this year has been spotty. Whether the chasing pack are playing above themselves or the All Blacks have climbed down to meet them is open to personal interpretation, but these eyes still believe an in-form New Zealand should still be too good for any other team on the planet.

Those same eyes are telling me that apart from tests against whipping boys Australia, the All Blacks are underperforming.

Three times in the space of two months supposedly inferior teams have taken the All Blacks to the wire.

On two occasions there were extenuating circumstances – gifting South Africa 14 points in Wellington; the dreadful weather in London – but the fact remains you only need one thing to go wrong in World Cup and you're left with four years of torment.

An excellent 80-minute showing in Dublin will ease some creeping anxiety.


Yemen is racked by war and a large portion of its population is racked by famine, but at least its football programme is hanging in there. From Deadspin.

Fabiano Caruana is looking to return American chess to glory days not seen since Bobby Fischer. From Time.

On the subject of Fischer, it is worth revisiting this classic lacerating profile/obit.

This article was first published on nzherald.co.nz and is republished here with permission.

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