The England rugby team flattered to deceive yesterday in losing 21-24 to New Zealand, a game I watched on television. It wasn’t a great match by any stretch of the imagination but it demonstrated the essential strengths that allow the All Blacks to dominate world rugby. Don’t get me wrong, they are always beatable on any given day – however, it takes a damned good side which plays to the best of its ability and also get the rub of the green to do it … and that confluence of fortune doesn’t come around too often.
Games like this highlight the myths that people in sport peddle as part of the industry process – for example, no team manager or individual ever admits that they’re unlikely to win before a sporting contest takes place, even if that’s the truth.
Yesterday was no exception. Beforehand England head coach Stuart Lancaster was testifying as to how well England had gone in their fortnight’s training camp and how they were ready to win. After the match, perhaps inevitably, he spoke of drawing the positives “We were playing a side that have been together for two months, compared to which we’ve only had a week and a half …” [or words to that effect] before he then went on to list all the injured players who might return for England before the Six Nations, let alone the Rugby World Cup. The trouble with interviews like these – I’m not attacking Lancaster per se – is that they’re always full of predictable hot air clichés and yet we’re eternally happy to tune in and listen to them.
The trouble with watching any sport is the degree to which every contest, whilst throwing up detailed evidence that might cause you to revise them, actually tends to reinforce your pre-existing prejudices on team selections and tactics.
For example, I’ve never been convinced that Owen Farrell is the best man to play fly half for England (I’m a George Ford supporter in this respect) and yesterday Farrell’s performance entrenched that opinion further. Apart from anything else, I don’t think he was test match fit – he couldn’t be, given how little rugby he’s played.
At full back, Mike Brown generally showed his international class – but also his slightly-below par club form this term in spilling an exquisite long pass from Kyle Eastmond in the first half. Had that easy ball been caught, it would have allowed Brown to walk in for a second England try that would have both given the home side great momentum and New Zealand something to think hard about. Instead this became a gold-plated potential winning opportunity missed. Such moments swing important matches.
I’m a supporter on principle of all match officials, and also rate Nigel Owens highly, but on this occasion he had a mixed match and handled the TMO situations weirdly.
In a perfect position to judge, he awarded an Aaron Cruden (All Black) try immediately [fair enough!], but then the TV video replays, which were seen on the big screen inside the stadium, appeared to show there was no conclusive certainty that the ball had been grounded correctly.
Yet later, after awarding a seemingly straightforward All Blacks forwards-rumble try by Charlie Faumuina – even as the subsequent conversion kick was being lined up – apparently in response to requests from the England players, Owens stopped proceedings and referred the try upstairs to the TMO. Which confirmed the try was fine.
These incidents highlighted an issue with the TMO conventions. It seems to me that either all potential try-scoring movements should be automatically referred to the TMO … or (alternatively) the referees should just back their own snapshot judgements, as they have done since time immemorial.
My point is, Owens gave the impression yesterday that he was being inconsistent.
In my view, yesterday he shouldn’t have re-visited his own decision on the Faumuina try, either in response to requests from players, or at all. Especially not after he had earlier failed to refer the Cruden try upstairs.
At the end of the day, we can pontificate about such matters but I guess the only thing that matters is whether the decisions of the moment are correct.
The problem was exacerbated by events leading to the yellow card given to NZ hooker Dane Coles for lashing out with his foot after being pushed by his England counterpart Dean Hartley, making contact with Danny Care’s leg. (Shortly afterwards it appeared that Care had to be substituted because of the impact).
Owens referred the incident upstairs to the video referee but then, before receiving the TMO’s response, intervened to the effect: “I’ll tell you what I’ve seen [i.e. from the video replay on the big screen] – White 2 pushes Black 2, then Black 2 lashes out and stamps on White 2’s leg … I’m minded to award a penalty to England and a yellow card to Black 2 …” [a view with which, of course, the video ref was not going to disagree].
However, Coles had not stamped upon the leg of ‘White 2’ (Dylan Hartley) at all – as was obvious from the video replays – he’d stamped on the leg of Danny Care, the England scrum half.
In other words – in front of both the spectators in the stadium and a vast global television audience – referee Owens was about to award a (probably-justified) yellow card to a New Zealand player on a set of facts (as he saw them) that was clearly technically/factually incorrect!
No wonder rugby’s current video-referral system is seen by many as something of a mess at the moment.