George Clancy was handed the opening game of the RWC despite Paddy O' Brien's very public criticism for his handling of Jimmy Cowan’s disallowed try in the Test match between New Zealand and South Africa in the Tri-Nations. Was this a warning sign of the incompetence that was to characterise this year's Rugby World Cup?
In the South Africa versus Wales game, there was a controversial James Hook penalty which might or might not have gone over, but was adjudicated to have missed. Wales Captain Sam Warburton was heard asking if the kick could be referred to the TMO. Wayne Barnes reply was that it was not allowed, after the game experts commented that this was, in fact well within the laws of the game, begging the question, how can a ref not know the rules? That South Africa had beaten Wales by a 2-point margin only served to add fuel to the fire. It was bizarre how this incident was blown out of proportion because on the TV replay it is clear the ball moved to between the uprights after it passed the right pole. There were other incidents in this match like the fact that the try by Toby Faletau come of a forward pass but that was not mentioned at all.
Although referee Nigel Owens was the target of bile and vitriol in a twitter rant by Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu in which he was called a "racist biased p*#@k" after he gave Paul Williams perhaps the softest red-card of all time for a love-tap on Heinrich Brussow, many other critics noted that he had allowed the Samoans to commit numerous off-the-ball infractions throughout the game. The icing on the cake was awarding John Smit a yellow card for a knock-down that was clearly not deliberate.
Bryce Lawrence was made to apologise to Australia for his handling of the scrum against Ireland after overseeing their group game, the win by Ireland ensured that they would top the table, thus sending Australia into difficult quarterfinal against the Springboks.
Tommy Bowe was clearly through for a try against Italy when a little skullduggery from the Italians ensured that the try was not scored. Jonathan Kaplan asked the TMO if the player had been interfered with in the in-goal area, TMO Shaun Veldsman adjudicated that there had not been interference, and the try was disallowed, much to the chagrin of the commentator as the replay showed that the player had clearly been interfered with.
Bryce Lawrence made his second blunder of the Rugby World Cup when, after having jettisoned the Wallabies in the path of the Springboks he suddenly forgot how to officiate the breakdown and allowed for a free-for all. Few felt sorry for Lawrence, who missed among other things high-tackles on the Springboks and numerous breakdown infringements, when a Facebook petition to have him never officiate a rugby match ever again garned 80,000 likes. He has subsequently been criticised by David Campese, Andre Watson and several other neutral newspapers for his performance.
Alain Rolland's red card against Sam Warburton in the semi-final between France and Wales might have been to the letter of the law, but it ruined the game as a contest, effectively ensuring that the 2011 RWC final would go down as a damp squib as the mighty All Blacks prepare to face perhaps one of the most mediocre France teams of all time.
Former Referee and current head of the IRB refereeing panel Paddy O' Brien has become public enemy number one after his strange behaviour and dodgy referee appointments have fuelled the fire questioning his neutrality. He apologised to New Zealand last year after claiming that Stuart Dickinson had unfairly blown the scrums in a game where the All Blacks scrum was taking an absolute pounding against Italy, then he publicly criticised George Clancy for disallowing Jimmy Cowan's try (off a forward pass) against South Africa. The IRB chief of refs then went strangely mum after Bryce Lawrence's nightmare game against the Springboks, claiming it was IRB policy not to comment on referee performances. A change in tack perhaps? His appointment of Bryce Lawrence for the Springbok-Australia game when a Northern referee would have been more suitable, and his appointment of Craig Joubert for two New Zealand games in a row (semi-final and final), thus handing them a clear advantage are just a few examples of his bizarre decisions. Is it any wonder the conspiracy theorists are having a field-day?
Controversy due to inconsistent refereeing has somewhat marred a homecoming of the Rugby world cup to its original host of 24 years ago and the home of the most successful rugby side in rugby Union history.
The first match affected by this enigma was Wales vs South Africa on 11 September 2011. Referee Wayne Barnes omitted to refer a penalty kick to the TMO for review as the assistant referees were not sure whether the ball went through the posts. In this case the outcome would not have mattered as two time Rugby World Cup final referee Andre Watson stated that the TMO would have needed conclusive evidence that the ball did indeed go through the posts and in this case there was not sufficient evidence.
Later in the match, on the 72 minute mark, referee Wayne Barnes awarded a penalty to Wales when George North tackled Francois Hougaard just outside their 22 and never released the tackled player but continued to hold onto player and ball. In this case Barnes penalised Hougaard for holding onto the ball even though he was not given the opportunity to place the ball.
Fortunately for South Africa the kick missed and thereby averting an injustice. Amongst these questionable decisions South Africa also complained after the match that their understanding of how the break down would have been refereed would be far stricter and that the “daylight” law would be needed to adhered to in the strictest sense.
The next controversy came courtesy of Bryce Lawrence on the 17th of September 2011 when a fancied Australian outfit met Ireland at Eden Park. Australia was severely punished by Lawrence at scrum time and after the match Lawrence eventually admitted that he has made several key “blunders” at scrum time and in other areas during the match. Even though the Irish scrum was totally dominant against the Australian scrum there was enough cause for concern in other areas.
On the 18th of September Alain Rolland officiated a match between Wales and Samoa. Even though popular opinion had it that Rolland was pretty poor for both sides, Samoa felt aggrieved over a trey being declined due to what the referee saw as a double movement. Captain of Samoa Mahonri Schwalger had this to say: "That was pretty harsh and it might have been the turning point of the game,” Schwalger said.
“There’s some things you can’t win and that’s the way it goes. All we can do now is just move on.”
On 30 September 2011 Referee Nigel Owens lost complete control of a do or die match for Samoa when facing South Africa for their last opportunity to make the play offs. In a match that was marred by many off the ball incidents, Owens eventually red carded Paul Williams son of legendary All Black Bryan Williams for an open handed strike to the face of Heinrich Brussow and then went on two minutes later to sin bin Springbok skipper John Smit for a illegal knock down of a ball on the half way line, which can only be assumed to be retribution for the red card suggested by the assistant referee on Paul Williams. Unfortunately two wrongs do not make a right, and only further enhanced the opinion that Nigel Owens had lost complete control of the match.
At this point it shouldn’t be a surprise that many fans must have thought pool D was not the pool of death, but rather the pool of Debilitation, effectively hindering teams in this pool to play to their full potential as a result of inconsistent refereeing at breakdowns, their inability to control the players in these extremely physical match ups and in general presiding over controversial matches whenever South Africa, Wales and Samoa faced each other.
But sadly this would not be the end of the controversy.
In the quarter final match between a South African team who dominated just about every aspect of the game against Australia, Pocock was allowed to rule the breakdown without any fear of consequence, The loss of Heinrich Brussow after 20 minutes did not help South Africa in gaining any form of control at the breakdowns. Bryce Lawrence must have had noble intentions of allowing play to continue and South Africa as some said should have adapted to the blasé manner in which the breakdowns were officiated.
The problem for them not being able to adapt and win in spite of this was two fold, when Pocock was allowed to enter a ruck 5 meters out from the South African try line 10 minutes into the match, and then proceed to stand in an offside position to kick the ball into the hands of Australia who then went over for the only try of the match, the damage was already done. In a match that was always going to be a match of inches was then further ruined by Australia being able to contest every ruck ball legally or illegally which ever way you saw it. Sadly the South Africans who attained 15 plus phases on 5 occasions were never able to score a try. It is very easy to criticise them and say with 76% of territory and 56% of possession they should have found a way to score, but the fact is when a team spends nigh on 12 minutes in the opponents red zone and pressure is supposed to convert into unorganised defence, it is only possible with quick ball. Unfortunately South Africa was never allowed quick ball because Australia could contest breakdown ball without any fear of prosecution and could there for organise their defences during this time.
Moving on to the semi final between Wales and France, controversy broke out once again after Alain Rolland decided to red card Sam Warburton, inspirational captain for Wales after a tip tackle. Even though this would seem to be a clear cut event many supporters felt that the interpretation of this law regarding when it is deemed that a player has dropped a tackled player without any regard for his safety did not warrant a red card, effectively ruining the match.
When I look at all these incidents it is clear that there are issues that the IRB has to look at and assess. The truth of the matter is whether teams needed to rise above the controversy or not, referees did have an impact on this world cup. I have no doubt in my mind about that.
The question though is, has the game become too fast and too complicated to be officiated by one man in the middle? I for one just want the best team on the day to win. Now I appreciate that referees are only human, and I have no doubt that they are unbiased and go into every match with the approach of being fair and impartial.
I listened to Andre Watson once where he was telling the story of when he was selected for his first international match, having to officiate a match Argentina was to play in. He was told by other referees about the fact that Argentina was just a little too physical and would often transgress with their forwards.
Although he had no intention of being unfair to Argentina and wanted to go into the match with an impartial view, he did have a perception to watch the Argentinean players closely. I often wonder how many transgressions did he miss from the opposition team that day.
Similarly I question the mindset of Bryce Lawrence when he officiated the match between SA and Australia.
After publically admitting his blunders during Australia’s clash against Ireland, especially after the Australian media put so much emphasis on his performance mere days before the quarter final. He is only human after all.
But, getting back to the IRB. What are they going to do to ensure the credibility of results in closely fought test matches? Yes there are times when you can disregard the rants of disappointed fans, you can call them sore losers, but it does not take away from the fact that referees have influenced matches in this World Cup.
If I was running the IRB, my first priority would be to find a solution to officiating matches with more consistency and accuracy. It is superfluous to change the laws of the game to ensure faster more attacking
rugby if the person who has to officiate does not have the necessary tools or ability to keep up.
Whether the International rugby board simplifies laws to the point where there are less grey areas, or whether they look at the manner in which matches are officiated, something needs to be done as a matter of urgency.