21 Nov

Alan 'Bin Laden' Lewis
by Paul Waite
21 Nov 2005

There was a terrible blight on what should have been a fantastic keystone test in this Grand Slam tour of 2005 – it was the refereeing.

First of all, a word to the IRB. Crowds and TV audiences turn up to watch XV vs XV find out who is best. Removing a player, or two, makes the game into an unacceptable farce. It should always be settled on the pitch by two full teams, otherwise it’s bloody meaningless if the side with more players wins. Thankfully, in this case, justice was done and New Zealand won, as they deserved to.

The sin-bin is an awfully flawed tool, in the quest to eradicate infringement and danger from the game. The reason is simple – every referee has his own widely disparate views on its use, and therefore we see the stupid pantomime we had in this test being enacted time after time – that of a puzzled player marching off the paddock. Why is he puzzled you ask? The answer is usually simple. The player is accustomed to playing a certain way, legally, in his own country, and has fallen a-foul of the “interpretations” of a referee from another.

Claims that New Zealand “cynically infringed” to keep England out are risible. England showed against Australia, and again against New Zealand, that their “attack” has about as much bite as an 18-year old Rottweiler in need of a set of false teeth.

New Zealand were completely in control of the proceedings, and in no danger whatsoever from England then, out of the blue, and with no prior warnings to All Black skipper Umaga regarding particular offences becoming repetetive and/or professional fouls (which is the accepted norm) Lewis sent Woodcock from the field for 10 minutes, for goodness knows what offence. All the while watching on benignly as English players lay on the ground in each and every ruck scrabblling for the ball. As I said, it comes down to interpretations.

So, how should it be done, I hear you ask. Once again the answer is painfully simple. The referee should return to simply being able to award penalties or penalty tries – a most adequate punishment for on-the-field offences of the usual kind (retaining the red card for the very worst crimes as before). After the game a panel should sit and review the test, looking for the same things as citing commissioners do – foul play and anything else that we want to remove from the game, including cynical foul play, or professional fouls. Together with the referee’s report a more consistent and balanced methodology for punishment can then be implemented.

So on to the test. The All Blacks came out firing on only 6 out of 8 cylinders for this one, and started badly. Dan Carter, despite being lauded as the World’s Best Flyhalf up in the Northern Hemisphere, was mis-timing his kicks from hand, and the first one set up an English attack as it fizzled and fell to ground well inside touch and well inside the All Blacks half of the field. The result was some great pressure from England, another stupid fumble from the All Blacks, and a lineout. Despite some panicky attempts to keep them out the English forwards mauled over a lovely try, and must have been feeling very good about their start.

Back over in this neck of the woods, most spectators like myself, weren’t at all worried by this reversal, since we could see why it had happened, and knew that the reasons for it would be removed. So it turned out, as from that point onwards, whilst it was XV against XV England were completely nullified as an attacking force, and it was just a question of how many tries New Zealand could put past them.

The first part of this process was the scrum. Oh how the Englsh press had beaten up the prospect of the Sheridan vs. Hayman battle. Ahem, the scrum is eight men, all acting in concert, not one man even if he is a behemoth. To cut a long story short, Hayman had much the better of Sheridan as close inspection of the scummaging revealed the latter being bent out of shape time and again. In the end Sheridan went off, bloodied and looking like a wrung out dish-rag. I’m sure he’ll have learned a lot from his experience and will come back the better for it. Meanwhile on the other side, the World’s best loose-head prop, Tony Woodcock, was turning Phil Vickery into something resembling four tins of Kennomeat emptied out onto the floor. Woodcock has to be one of the most destructive props around, and delights in destroying his opposing tighthead. He didn’t disappoint.

So the All Blacks scrum nullified and then beat the English unit, if not to the legendary pulp at least into submission. The sight of Thompson being “popped” a few times was testament to the pressure going in on it.

But the reason for my laughing at the media beat-up wasn’t because I thought the New Zealand scrum would win out, it was because the test wasn’t going to hinge on that facet of the game. And it didn’t.

The reason New Zealand won this test was that they bested England in several key areas: they had a better organised and harder-hitting defence, they had a much more inventive and hard-to-contain attack, and they had a more mobile and skilful pack. Add in the solid lineout, and scrum, and the platform was there for victory.

If the test had stayed XV vs. XV, as it should have, then we would have seen the All Blacks’ 10-point lead probably extended by at least another 7, and this fits with the 17-20 points which is my assessment of the real gulf between these two teams. If Jonathon Kaplan had been officiating, then that is what the final score would have been, which is a case in point for my thesis above regarding inconsistencies making a farce of the sin-bin.

Looking at the sin-binnings themselves, one of the major issues I have with them is their ‘out of the blue’ nature. There were some utterly nebulous warnings to both skippers about “controlled aggression” early on, but the accepted refereeing protocol regarding yellow cards is that for infringements such as the ones in this test, you clearly warn the captain of the offending team that the particular infringment(s) must stop or the yellow will be used. No such thing happened, and the first we knew of it was that Woodcock was marching off. Unfortunately the TV coverage from Twickhenham was of such a piss-poor quality that we didn’t actually see why in that instance.

Later on Masoe did something stupid at a ruck – a definite infringement warranting a penalty, but not a yellow card, then Tialata was on the end of the same ridiculous treatment. The fact that English players were doing similar things, but in their own particular way just highlighted the problem – that referees get used to seeing certain things done a certain way, and can penalise unfairly as a result. There is no easy way of avoiding this for general play and penalites, but the yellow card totally throws the fine balance of a tight test match out of the window, and ruins it for everyone concerned, and should therefore be removed.

In the end England proved that they weren’t quite a match for 14 and sometimes 13 All Blacks, which was about right.

We note that the English media seem to view this as a ‘moral victory’ which seems a little sad. As a mate of mine said, we all thought that England held itself in higher esteem than that.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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