Highlanders_players_lift_Super_Rugby_trophyWhat a magnificent game of rugby that was. The Final is often not all it is cracked up to be, but this was an exception… Perhaps the undersell contributed, but there was heaps of over delivery! It was a stunning game brimming with the pace, inventiveness and super-skill set associated especially with NZ rugby… And it will go down as a classic!!

It may not have been a high scoring game for the ages, but it was full of drama and was for the most part, edge of your seat stuff from the beginning to the end. That is the way rugby should be played, and great credit goes out to both franchises, coaching staffs and all the players involved. NZ had by far the strongest conference this season, and it was fitting that their best 2 teams played in the Final.

But perhaps the referee, Jaco Peyper also needs to be mentioned in the same breath. He held his nerve beautifully throughout this fixture, allowed the game to develop at pace, explained his decisions well, prepared immaculately (as evidenced by the timing of his whistle and hand signals) and ultimately delivered the platform for the best 2 teams in the comp to have a full crack at each other. The players decided the outcome, and the best team on the day won the game.

Finals are often decided on small margins and quite clearly this one had to have the obligatory drama to fit the bill. There were many decisions throughout the game, both by players and the match officials which will be scrutinized by the Utopians. The reality is that nothing is ever perfect. It can’t be. Was the turning point Julian Savea dropping the ball with an open line (just when I thought the Highlanders magnificent defence was creaking), I thought maybe it was Ross Geldenhuys not falling over the line with it absolutely at his mercy after a surreal gliding run by Marty Banks ( had the Highlanders lost, this would have been spoken about for years) or was it the TMO call of Ben Skeen to award Elliot Dixon a try just before halftime?

Let’s discuss the latter because it is quite interesting.

Dixon busts up through a few would be tacklers and is lunging for the line. As he attempts to ground the ball, Milner-Skudder appears from from his left and attempts to kick the ball as he is grounding it. He misses. Dixon grounds the ball mostly on Milner-Skudders leg, and the ground. Remember, all it has to touch is 1 blade of grass for the try to be given. If the ball has not left Dixons hand by the time it touches 1 blade of grass, it’s a try! Furthermore, he does not need to be in control of the ball. All he needs to look at is that there is no separation. The TMO is tasked with this very difficult decision.

In my professional opinion, I would say that the ball had to have touched at least 1 blade of grass before Dixon let go of the ball. Therefore I believe the decision by the TMO was accurate.

Furthermore, if you can categorically say that it never touched the ground, then I have an extremely compelling argument that a penalty try would then have been awarded! It clearly states in law that you may not kick the ball out of the hands of a player attempting to score a try. This is exactly what Milner-Skudder attempted to do, and as a direct result of that act, his trailing leg became the only point of conjecture as to whether a try was scored. Since we cannot separate pieces of a players anatomy from their bodies, we must regard this leg as part of the illegal act, and hence a penalty try would have been given.

The score came at a crucial time in the game, just before halftime, and as often happens in these low scoring affairs, those moments are critical!

The fact that the penalty try was not mentioned on any of the networks is once again a sad indictment of the quality of experts in this field that they do not possess. It would have been a magic talking point, and would have gone a long way towards allaying fears from the Canes faithful that they had been hard done by.

I pointed out after the game that this was a day the men from the Deep South would never ever forget. It’s true. Furthermore it is a testimony to the NZRU that they continued to have faith in Jamie Joseph after the Highlanders misery of 3 years ago, and the reward for the franchise has been translated into a multiple gain for the country. They have another winning coach, a band of players who will start to believe even more than they did, and a part of the country who was starved of success, who now has something to cherish…. Forever !!

I will also say that I may have been saying something similar for how Chris Boyd has turned around the fortunes of the Canes since he took over. Previously unheralded players, players considered by many to be journeymen, and a few novices were transformed into the best team in the comp. They were the most consistent and they improved their onfield decision making out of sight. You have to feel for them , especially John Plumtree, who has now fallen at the final hurdle 4 times. It must have been a really tough night for them.

It was a tough year for the referees in this years super rugby competition. Personally I felt some of the performances this year were woeful, with some personnel being given the cut. Included in that mix, are some of the TMO decisions which I thought contributed to some shocking decisions with game altering outcomes. It is simply not good enough to be offering this poor quality of officiating at one of the premier provincial tournaments. The public deserve better, and the referees deserve a quality coach!

On the plus side I will commend the choice of the final 4 referees for playoffs. They were the best available, and I thought the decision to give Peyper a crack at a final was a sure indication that the authorities have finally realized that they need to broaden the base of those that are capable of doing these games… Otherwise it is an indictment of their systems that they only use 1 official all the time. Peyper, Pollock, Jackson and Joubert were all very good throughout the year. Of those bubbling under I would be quite happy to work with the likes of Gardner and Fraser who I believe have shown the correct aptitude to make good progress again next year…

On the domestic front, this week signaled the end of the road for Andre Watson as manager of SA Referees. There have been rumblings of discontent for some time now and I for 1 believe that it’s been long overdue (I mentioned a few instances of the perpetual friction that I endured with him as a colleague in my best-selling book ” Call it like it is”). Having said that, I won’t be handing out sweets to those celebrating someone else’s demise as I don’t think it’s nice when someone loses their job in such an ignominious manner. There will be a fair amount of factional discord in the organization, so it will take some skill to sort this out. Perhaps a fresh start is all that’s needed … 😉