In this week’s exclusive column, former Springbok prop Cobus Visagie discusses refereeing decisions and key match-ups.
I promise this is the last article I will publish about this subject. Cobus said it all, I cannot add any more. This is a good analysis by a Professional player with many years of experience.
Dissecting the quarter-finals and looking forward to the semi-finals
It is possible to focus too much on the stats of the quarter-final weekend and lose sight of the patterns that are emerging in this World Cup. The Welsh and French victories followed a similar script. Leading into the Springboks’ game against Australia it was clear from the battles on the Saturday, you had to set out your stall early in the game. The team that got ahead early and really showed from the start they wanted it more, walked away with the spoils.
However the stats from the Springbok’s defeat are so mind boggling, it validates a second look. They managed fifteen plays of more than five phases, while Australia could not manage that once, but still lost the game. Not even 100% line-out and scrum possession could secure the victory. So what went wrong? How can a team with 78% possession and similar field position statistics lose a game in a World Cup? South Africa followed the same formula as the Welsh and the French and looked like the team that wanted it more, keeping ball in hand and running hard at the Wallabies for 80 minutes. Even Quade Cooper, the mercurial Aussie fly-half, was absolutely nowhere in the game. And still the South Africans lost.
The problem is that South Africa lost this game a long time before they stepped on the field Sunday afternoon. They lost it when SARU appointed a coaching team with no winning record in senior professional rugby four years ago. They lost it when John Smit was appointed as captain six months before the tournament, when he was clearly not in the same league as the world class Bismarck du Plessis and when the Boks needed to groom another captain. They lost it when they persisted to try and play players like Brian Habana, Pierre Spies and Fourie du Preez in to form, while there were other players like Francois Hougaard, Willem Alberts and many others playing exceptional rugby. For years now the South African back-line have had no real sting compared to the Kiwis and Wallabies, but we persisted with the old hands to the detriment of developing new players with try-scoring ability.
But they also lost it when Bryce Lawrence was appointed to referee the game, because without players with X-factor (Francois Steyn and Heinrich Brussow’s injury), the Springboks were just not better than the sixteen men that lined-up against them at the cake tin in Wellington. I was coached all my life and I still believe that you need to be better than the referee’s decisions, but at this level where the difference between two teams is measured in inches, this issue can just not be wiped under the carpet. His performance was nothing short of abysmal. He did not award the Bok try because of a dubious forward pass and minutes later when the Boks once again breached the Aussie defences and were well on their way to scoring another try, he called them back again for a forward pass. Shortly after that he failed to penalise Daniel Vickerman (off his feet) for ripping the ball out of a ruck three meters from the Aussie line with Boks on attack. Three try scoring opportunities are rare in Test matches and the lack of consistency in refereeing styles continues to blight Test rugby and do determine the outcome of matches. This is not sour grapes. This is a problem in all professional rugby and it all started when players were not allowed to ruck players on the wrong side of a ruck or those with their hands in the rucks. The boot policed the ruck in the past and no one got seriously hurt in the process.
What is done is done and we need to look forward, but my final question on the matter is, if it is appropriate for Paddy O’Brien, New Zealander through and through, to be the official who rate and appoints the referees for the final. Can we trust him to appoint a referee that has the guts to referee Richie McCaw in a final, like Wayne Barnes did in the Tri-Nations game prior to the RWC?
He definitely got it wrong with the appointment of Lawrence, who was under massive pressure to correct the “wrongs” he publicly admitted to after the Wallabies’ game against Ireland. To be honest, the biggest difference between Saturday and Sunday’s games were the referees. Craig Joubert assisted the Ireland versus Wales game in being a truly magnificent game with no contentious issues and mistakes. Advantage was given to the team that showed the most enterprise and played within the rules.
My opinion would have been no different if Australia or New Zealand was eliminated by such incompetent refereeing. The fact that Lawrence “over refereed” the Australian pool game against Ireland, should not result in him turning a blind eye to ruck infringements in the spirit of letting the game flow. I was also absolutely baffled during the Argentinean game against the All Blacks. When the Pumas had possession, the All Blacks were allowed to lie on their elbows, three at a time, slowing the ball and the Argentineans were penalised for not releasing. The Kiwis never released in the tackle and the South Americans were never allowed to place the ball, which is the most emphasised directive for referees. When New Zealand had possession, all you could hear at every ruck was “tackler release”. I have never seen such blatant bias in my life. There is only one way to explain this: the referees want to show their boss, Paddy O’Brien, that they will look after Richie McCaw and his mates to get their hands on the William Webb Ellis trophy. It has become clear to me that McCaw has lost the ability to challenge for a ball in the ruck within the rules of the game. It is a very sad state of affairs and the stuff conspiracy theories are made of, but unfortunately there is no other explanation for this prejudice.
If we are honest with ourselves, the game this weekend will turn around the battle between McCaw and Pocock and how it will be refereed on the day. Australia has now had two really bad days at the office in three weeks, but they also came into the tournament with a victory against the All Blacks. We all know they can beat Kiwis, but the real question is if Quade Cooper can overcome the pressure in the big game. The All Blacks have been the team that managed to neutralise him best and if I was part of the Wallaby management, I would consider starting with Berrick Barnes instead of Cooper. You cannot allow your team to stand and fall on the form of one player. I will therefore have to say my head backs the Kiwis to make it through to the final, even though they have the same question mark about the temperament of their young fly-half, Aaron Cruden. It is however clear that the rest of the All Blacks backline look very comfortable with him and if there is one team that can look after a young players, it is the All Blacks.
Insiders gave me a heads up before the French quarter-final game that a big reason for the unhappiness in the French team was about the omission of Imanol Harinordoquy in the pool games. His response to his inclusion was a Man of the Match performance and his team-mates also rallied with him to produce the best French performance in two years. So now the question is: can they do it again? I think it will be a great running game and the French will come out firing on all available cylinders, but the Welsh boys have got more belief and they also know why they are playing well. Under the guidance of Gatland they will play their style, but still play the percentages and it will steer them into their first World Cup final. The essence of rugby will, however, never change. When all things seem to be equal, the team that wants it more will walk away with the spoils (except if the referee wants it otherwise).