25 Jun

A Loon With A Whistle
by Paul Waite
25 Jun 2006

There was more than a touch of the Soccer World Cup about this test in Buenos Aires, won 25-19 by the All Blacks.

The partisan crowd had come fresh from seeing the Argentinian soccer team going through to the last 8 of the World Cup, and our test match referee, a Mr. Nigel Whitehouse, had apparently decided to emulate some of the insane refereeing antics which had recenty been on show at that tournament in the pool games.

There are times when you just know that the official in charge simply hasn’t got a clue what’s going on, and is floundering out of his depth. This was one of those times. A clear indicator was the number of penatlies and free kicks (well on the way to 30 of the former) and the way these were almost always awarded (safely) against the attacking team.

How are referees selected, and graded? Will this imbecile be told to go back to refereeing school, and buck his ideas up? Or will he just be allowed to go ahead and screw up his next tests in a similar manner to this one? Answers on a postcard…

The All Blacks scored 3 tries to 1 in this test, but that, together with the final scoreline are about the only positives you could drag out of it. The team pushed the pass too far all day, despite reigning it in for the second half a bit. A lack of patience saw them make breaks and then spill the ball or infringe and knock themselves back time after frustrating time, playing nicely into the hands of a limited, but clever Argentina.

Pulling the focus back out, and scanning the Big Picture, we can see that Graham Henry has played off team-building and match fitness of a single 3N squad against recuperation for everyone, and experience for some newbies.

There is no free lunch, and the payoff for that is that we now have a large extended squad of players which have varying degrees of rustiness and little of no combination going into the 3N.

It sounds bad, but I believe Henry has got it right. The alternative was an almost certain burn-out for the top 22 test players at the end of the 3N, following on after the first ever S14 rugbython. Trading off the chance of 2-3 tests where he could have played his top combination and built match fitness, he has opted to give the players a much less demanding six weeks.

How he will now manage the 3N itself is the next question. Obviously some kind of consistency has to be applied, to build towards the top team.

Looking back on the Argentine test, there were on reflection some other positives. Scott Hamilton had a good one on the wing, scoring a try, and contributing well. The drizzly conditions suited his excellent reading of the game, and didn’t expose his lack of top-end speed. In midfield the Tuitupou – Toeava combination worked quite well on attack, though on defence the jury has to remain out, as the Argentinians did not apply much pressure there.

At the set -piece, where the main test was rightly judged to be the All Blacks did not fare too well. They were out-mauled, out-scrummed, and out-played at the lineout.

With the maul, the defence was not good enough, and was often too scrambled with players too upright and not joining properly, allowing the vigilante with the whistle to play his loony-tunes. It did just enough to survive.

In the scrum it wasn’t as bad, and the honours were nearly even. When Woodcock and Oliver went off however it was noticably less stable with Tialata and Hore in their place.

The lineout was just about (but not quite) a horror story. Ali Williams was so off the pace, he might as well not have been there. Jason Eaton looked young and nervous, and fumbled his way through. In contrast, his work in general play was superb, and he made Scott Hamilton’s try with an excellent break, once again indicating that his best position might eventually be as a No.6 rather than at lock. Lineout communications were also pretty piss-poor, with the odd throw not jumped for. All in all, not a pretty sight and a blight on the test for the Men in Black.

At the breakdown, there was a big problem. It was called the referee, who had not one single clue what was going on. As such it was a lottery, and there was no chance of “playing to the referee’s whistle” because there was no basis in reason, this side of the sanity divide, on which to construe how to play the game.

In the end this test probably had its just result, given the try-scoring difference, however if it had gone the other way nobody would have been surprised. The icing on the Loonytunes Cake was when a touch-judge goose-stepped onto the pitch late in the test to award a penalty to Argentina for a “late” tackle by Sammy Tuitupou.

The tackle wasn’t even late on the slow-motion replay let alone in real-time. It was an awful decision on a night of awful decisions, and gave the home side a lovely platform to finish on as they drove the ball up inside the All Blacks’ 22m.

So there was one final positive to take from this test – the way the guys gutsed out that terrible decision, and held the Argentinians out maul after maul, drive after drive, and kept it that way until the final whistle.

Well done guys – you’re well out of there! Come home, and put the feet up for a few days.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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