For my sins – despite the ‘Phoney War’ nature of all these Rugby World Cup warm-up games – yesterday I made a point of watching Channel Four’s live coverage of the Welsh 13-6 victory over England in their return fixture at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff.
Both coaching teams made a virtue of playing down the significance of the encounter whilst giving as many of their respective squads as possible some game time. Not that the home crowd cared about that – for Welsh fans any victory over England is a triumph comparable to winning the RWC!
Although England could point to the injustice of French referee Pascal Gauzere allowing Welsh fly half Dan Biggar to take a quick penalty before the yellow-carded England wing Anthony Watson had got anywhere nearer departing the field – a farcical decision that immediately resulted in one of the softest tries in recorded history as two phases (and to be fair a consummately-executed cross-field chip-kick also by Biggar) later big George was strolling in unopposed on the left wing with the England defence not so much in disarray as completely absent.
Arguably in international sport these things sometimes happen – I don’t suppose England will be caught napping like it again when the real thing begins – but a degree of English indignation ought to be allowed.
Monsieur Gauzere ignored it.
The visitors were hard done by, especially since the try that followed (and its conversion after) was the final scoreboard difference between the teams and – midway through the second half – the referee then brought play back when England substitute scrum half Ben Youngs essayed a quick tap penalty inside his own half that would have caught Wales on the hop and broken up play in a similar fashion.
As it happens, later in the afternoon I watched a bit of football’s Premier League 2-2- draw between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur in which a spectacular winning ‘goal’ by the hosts’ Gabriel Jesus from a corner in, or very close to, injury time was at first given … and then challenged by the VAR system and reversed for an earlier hand ball as the ball whipped across the Spurs’ penalty area.
At the moment – although the terms upon which it is being deployed are specific and transparent – the use of VAR in football is receiving a mixed reception from many in the game.
It is easy to understand why. Without doubt, some key decisions on incidents (e.g. offsides, penalties, hand balls, bad tackles) that in the past would have been taken by the match officials in the heat of the play and accepted without question by all concerned … when now subsequently reviewed by the VAR officals and then possibly reversed because of some aspect of the play which the referee and his assistants may not have seen or taken into consideration – and indeed the time it takes for those in the video room to make the possibility known to the referee and then deliver the ‘new’ verdict – have caused frustrations and issues for both those on the field of play, in the stands or even watching from their sofa at home.
If VAR had been operating during the game in Cardiff – on similar terms and conditions to that being applied in Premier football – the George North try would almost certainly have been chalked off because of Monsieur Guazere’s schoolboy error.
Not that I am complaining about the result of the game. Scoreboards rarely lie and frankly, on the run of play, both teams were resolutely physical in both defence and attack and to all intents and purposes effectively cancelled each other out and – to be blunt about it – nobody on either side could supply the flash of inspiration needed that might break the deadlock.
Inevitably the threat of injury hung over proceedings. Dan Biggar, who won the Man of the Match award yesterday, is now (with the withdrawal of Anscombe after his heartbreaking ACL knee injury at Twickenham last week which will put him out for a year) Wales’ Number One fly half for the Rugby World Cup.
He suffered a ‘stinger’ injury to his left shoulder midway through the second half and was clearly in discomfort but carried on playing for another fifteen minutes – and hurting it again – before being withdrawn.
You’d have thought that, after the criticism of the Welsh coaching team last time out for not withdrawing Anscombe immediately he began limping at Twickenham, they’d have got Biggar off straight away as a precaution – I know I would.
Wales had two on the bench vying for the Number 2 fly half position and Evans should have come on at least a quarter of an hour earlier than he did. It would have protected Biggar from the threat of more serious injury and, frankly, there’s precious little you can do in the last four and a half minutes of a tight game to display your talents and/or advance your cause.