The quarterfinals of the RWC were great spectacles for the rugby nuts around the world, for a variety of reasons.
The first, between SA and Wales was an incredibly tough test match. It won’t go down as a classic of the modern era, but it was tense, it was tactical, and the margin in the end was very small! Whoever lost this match, would have felt desolate, as both teams had clearly put a lot into it. It came down to one moment for the Boks. A simple blindside play, where man-on-man cover was exploited by Vermeulen to send Fourie du Preez over in the corner. Schalk Burger got the MoM award, but in truth it could have gone to Lydiate as well if the Welsh had prevailed.
I thought Warburton and Gatland were very gracious and full of class in their post-match comments, particularly when it must have been hurting how close they had come to beating Southern Hemisphere teams in the past five years (equally so, I thought Du Preez tried to downplay his own contribution) I thought the referee, Wayne Barnes, delivered an intelligent display, trying his best to communicate his thoughts. I thought he was quite tough on the Welsh early on, particularly with rolling-away penalties (12th min is an example – what more Wynn-Jones could have done to get out of the tackle zone, I’m not sure) and later rewarding a not clear and obvious release (75th min). Having said that, he will fancy his chances of a plum game in the tournament, certainly one of the standout referees this RWC.
The second quarterfinal produced the performance of the year when the All Blacks demolished a weak French team. Most pundits thought this may be tight, comparing it to previous RWC encounters. Not I! The All Blacks were supreme in their execution and never allowed the French into the fixture. They played relentless attacking rugby at a high tempo and crucially held on to the ball for long periods. They were too streetwise and smart. By the end of the game, they had once again proved to the rest of the rugby world that their humility is matched by their on-field exploits and they were operating on a different stratosphere to the rest! It is very rare to have these types of blow outs in playoff rugby at RWCs, and this one was spectacular!! Nigel Owens did a wonderful job in keeping the fixture bubbling even when the result was a forgone conclusion. I felt he could have cleared the NZ shrapnel around the breakdown a little quicker to produce faster ball for the French on occasion, but for me at least, he demonstrated a beautiful read of the game. He is the favourite to do the final!
The third quarterfinal produced a minor upset when Los Pumas beat a determined Irish team looking for their first semi-final appearance at a RWC. It was not to be for the Irish, as they conceded too many early points, and were then forced to play catch-up rugby. They made a good fist of it, but ultimately ran out of juice. The Pumas are exceptionally skilful, beating defenders almost at will, their scrum is potent, and they can be quite destructive on defence at the breakdown.
I thought Jerome Garces had his best game of the tournament and justified the selectors’ faith in him by producing a very accurate, composed performance. He does tend to reward the defensive team a little more than the others, but I thought his scrum sanction was good, and he was very sharp around the breakdown area! The better team won the game, so there can be few moans about his performance, and perhaps he has shown his hand at just the right time (not having been at his best in a couple of the earlier games).
And so on to the last quarterfinal and clearly the most dramatic. I admire what Vern Cotter has done for the Scots, but most neutrals would not have predicted how close they would come to beating the vastly favoured Wallabies! While it’s true that the Wallabies bossed the game in terms of the number of tries scored, they just could not seem to end the spirited challenge of Scotland. It’s also true to say that they scored five tries and conceded a charge down and an intercept (mentioned by Cheika post match), but that should not take anything away from a team that refused to lie down!
Much has been said about referee Craig Joubert’s last decision, a yellow card against Maitland and a potentially illegal challenge on Hogg in the dying stages. I don’t want to harp on each and every decision, but I will say that I thought the decision to yellow card Maitland was harsh, if not downright wrong. I think the referee saw the incident and should have gone with his instincts. Instead the TmO, Ben Skeen, informed the referee of his take on the situation, and the rest is history. Australia then used the numerical advantage to score, which is unfortunate.
The challenge on Hogg towards the end, could have been referred by the AR or the referee, neither of whom chose to. I don’t think there was much in it, and instead of delaying the game, I thought it was looked at and timeously well handled.
On to the last call: Joubert blew for Scottish prop Jon Welsh being offside ahead of the last “Scotsman” to play the ball, Josh Strauss. What happened between these two acts is what seems to have incensed a large portion of the Scottish rugby public and perhaps the neutrals looking for the upset.
If the ball touches a player (Phipps) and he doesn’t play it, it is not enough for the sanction of a penalty to change. And so, this whole review revolves around whether you think Phibbs intentionally played/touched the ball, when trying to catch it, or whether it merely bounced off him (refer law 11.3. C). This is the crux of the matter. Did Phipps get a hand to the ball, or did he get a finger on it? There are people on both sides of the fence, and those still sitting on that fence. This is not a luxury that Joubert had at his disposal. He had to make a decision in real time. It is not an easy decision, even in Slomo (by the way for those who will inevitably say that I am protecting the referee, you would need to read my previous pieces and follow my Twitter account to realise that I am not shy to point out refereeing errors, including the catastrophic errors made towards the end of some fixtures. In addition, I have criticised this referee in the past, in big games, where he deserved it. Not for the sake of criticising, but to highlight what is right and wrong for the public).
The only thing I will say is that generally referees are told to only to only blow for the clear and obvious and in this particular case I would hazard a guess that there could have been doubt.
A few questions: I have regularly expressed deep concern that the Laws of the game are too complex, not only for the public, but for the players too. To have this much conjecture is not good for anyone, least of all the integrity of the game. There are laws in the law book that we knowingly and willingly don’t apply and there are addendums, or whatever you want to call them, to help clarify what is stated in the law book. Is this good for the game?
In addition, I have long said that technology is here to stay. But for all the interventions by the TMOs, particularly in respect of foul play, they were hamstrung and could not contribute to one of the defining moments of the tournament. This was not a try-scoring situation and it was not foul play. A captain’s challenge may have solved the problem. We have to give more power to the players and coaches (and allow them to challenge questionable calls) and less to the men in the middle (the best of whom are making errors quite regularly. The game has become too quick and too complex for even the best to get it right, and perhaps we need a revolutionary change in thinking when it comes to game administration. Actually, not perhaps, but definitely!
Some asked why he left the field in such a hurry. It’s a fair point, whether he’s right or wrong. I genuinely don’t have the answer to that question, but I have always found him to be very courteous to all those around him, both on and off the field. Perhaps he felt he didn’t want to get involved in further controversy with disgruntled players and coaches? I do think it’s important to acknowledge everyone who participated on match day, so I’m not saying it’s a good look at all.
I don’t accept the vitriolic comments by some pundits and ex-players who are being paid big money by networks to offer their opinions. Some of what has gone on is “the” disgrace. I’m not referring to supporters, who are entitled to voice their grievances. What will be done about it? Probably nothing.
While not detracting from the controversy and its aftermath, I’ve yet to see much said about Scotland butchering the throw at the lineout. They had a chance to win possession, maul it and win the game. They didn’t. If Joubert’s decision was wrong, and some are entitled to think that, and he has made an error of judgment, then why nothing about the Scottish throw in? I know it doesn’t excuse a potential error by the officials, but let’s try and be even handed if we are going to criticise.
I will admit that while I think the Wallabies are the most improved team in the tournament, I was secretly hoping that the Scots could pull it off, so while I don’t share the same disappointment as some of the die-hard supporters, I really felt for them!!
I hope this little piece has helped to clear up the law and the difficult decision that followed. I would be very interested to see what the majority of the public think in respect of Joubert’s last penalty and you can vote on the RateTheRef website. Results will be published in my next article.
UPDATE – World Rugby issued a statement stating that it should have been a scrum, read more here.
And last, but by no means least, the showpiece game on the South African calendar, the Currie Cup Final, will be refereed by Rasta Rasivhenge. My sincere congratulations go out to him, and his team. Let’s hope it’s a game to remember!!