There are many reasons to feel great sympathy for Ireland over their defeat to New Zealand at the weekend, but the incident at the end of the match was particularly curious. Aaron Cruden was allowed two attempts at the winning conversion, a sequence of play that involved some questionable refereeing and some fine teamwork by the All Blacks.
Let’s look first at the positive part the All Blacks played. When Cruden missed his first shot at goal, he was somewhat surprised to get another go. He could have been flustered. But the captain and the spiritual leader of Cruden at the Chiefs, Liam Messam, made his way toward the touchline.
It was noticeable that it was Messam and not Richie McCaw who approached Cruden. Good leadership is often shared and Messam took the responsibility that his captain allowed him to have. He picked up a ball – by the laws of the game it should have been the same ball which was used to score the try, but I doubt it was – handed it to Cruden, gave him a pat on the head of encouragement and then stepped aside. A small thing, perhaps, but maybe a crucial moment of support.
Far less satisfactory was the role that referee Nigel Owens played in all of this. He effectively enabled a double jeopardy play against Ireland. When Cruden first went to take his conversion, three Ireland players charged, sparked by the shuffle of Cruden’s legs.
The law stipulates that players may charge when the kicker begins the approach or starts to kick. It is arguable whether Cruden had done so or not – I tend to think not, but is it incumbent on the defenders to understand a kicker’s routine – but the problem arose because the referee sent the chargers back when they were halfway towards Cruden.
At the intervention of Owens, Ireland’s players stopped their charge. Cruden then went through with his kick and missed to the right. Judging from his reaction, he thought that was game over, the match was drawn.
He said later, "I was pretty stoked to get a second opportunity. My kicking style didn’t change throughout the game so you would have thought they would be aware of my set-up and that little stutter I do to calm myself. It was a shame they charged early but for us, it was great to have another chance and see it go over.
“I suppose it was a reprieve, I just wanted to stay focused, stay in my rhythm and strike the ball well. And I was pretty happy to see the flags go up after I’d kicked it. I would say that is the biggest kick of my life.”
The problem with the whole sequence is the interference of Owens. Nowhere in the laws that I can see, does it say that the ref should turn back players if he deems them to be charging early. Owens should have let Ireland’s players continue to charge and then awarded Cruden another go if his kick had been unsuccessful.
But by interfering in the process Owens allowed Cruden two very decent goes at the one kick. By calling the chargers off the referee allowed Cruden every chance first time and would have awarded the conversion had it gone over. He then let him go again, when he had missed.
A section of the Ireland crowd booed and it was easy to understand why. Owens has had a good time of it lately, but like most modern refs he spends too long telling players what to do. On this occasion Owens significantly influenced the outcome of the game through his meddling. That is not good enough.
How did you see the incident at the end of this wonderful match? Did Owens unnecessarily influence the outcome of the match? Comments below…