No winner but World Rugby still loses
The British & Irish Lions’ tour of New Zealand came to an enthralling and painfully frustrating conclusion at Eden Park on Saturday night.
A brutal and breathtaking series decider ended in a 15-all draw that tantalised and then tortured throughout a rollercoaster ride of a contest.
The occasion may have failed to provide a winner but there was certainly a loser with the controversial finale showcasing the sport’s shortcomings that can no longer be ignored by World Rugby.
“It’s a bit like kissing your sister,” was All Blacks coach Steve Hansen’s assessment of a result that doesn’t really do anything for either party but the most unsatisfactory element of the game was the way in which it concluded.
Referee Romain Poite’s actions have come under intense scrutiny with the debate around his thought process in the dying moments of the game still raging on social media even now.
The game was on a knife edge with Owen Farrell’s 78th minute penalty having brought the Lions level and the crowd to the edge of their seat.
Beauden Barrett then rolled the dice one last time with a high and hanging re-start. His captain Kieran Read led the charge and challenged Lions full-back Liam Williams for the ball but neither were able to claim it.
The ball ricocheted off the Welshman and travelled forward before Lions hooker Ken Owens instinctively put out an arm and momentarily clasped the ball before dropping it and retreating with his hands aloft in an apparent admission of guilt.
All Blacks centre Anton Lienert-Brown then pounced on the loose ball and bounced out of a couple of tackles before closing in on the line only to have his progress halted by Poite’s whistle.
The experienced French referee had blown for a penalty no more than 30m from the Lions’ posts that even an out-of-sorts Barrett would have been confident of making.
Poite’s ruling appeared straight forward and in line with Law 11.7 regarding ‘Offside after a knock-on’.
“When a player knocks-on and an offside team-mate next plays the ball, the offside player is liable to sanction if playing the ball prevented an opponent from gaining an advantage. Sanction: Penalty kick”
Perhaps stunned by the dramatic late twist, rooted to the spot in disbelief or unconvinced by the basis for the decision, the Lions did not immediately retreat with captain Sam Warburton seen to either query it or seek clarification.
That act by the Lions captain may have been just as pivotal as any other in the gripping finale. If he had retreated and accepted the decision then perhaps Poite would not have acted on any doubts he may have had about his initial assessment.
The delay gave Poite valuable or dangerous thinking time, depending on your allegiance, and the result was a call for a review by the Television Match Official who on this occasion was George Ayoub.
His only viable reason for going to the TMO was to check for foul play during the contest for the ball as current World Rugby protocols only allow their input in the following circumstances:
• Determining the grounding of the ball in-goal for a try or touchdown and/or whether players were in touch or touch in goal before grounding
• Determining whether a kick at goal has been successful
• Confirm if an infringement has occurred in the build-up to a try or prevention of a try (infringement must be within two phases of the try or touchdown)
• Considering acts of possible foul play
Following the review and a brief discussion with Ayoub and assistant referee Jaco Peyper, Poite was seemingly convinced that his original decision was correct and he began to make his way back to where the infringement occurred.
However, the assistant referee working the touchline on the other side of the pitch – Jerome Garces – was clearly not so sure and appeared to contact Poite via their radio link.
We hear Poite acknowledge the enquiry on his own microphone – “Oui Jerome?” – but crucially we are unable to hear Garces’ assessment of the situation.
Those words were clearly powerful as by the time Poite called Warburton and Read towards him to explain his decision he had changed his mind.
In what we must remember is his second language, he explained to the captains that he had a ‘deal’ and that it was in fact a case of accidental offside.
Instead of a penalty sanction the All Blacks were awarded a scrum much to the amazement of Read who tried but failed to convince the ref that he was wrong.
It sent us scrabbling for the rule book once again and specifically Law 11.6 a) governing ‘Accidental Offside’ that states:
“When an offside player cannot avoid being touched by the ball or by a team-mate carrying it, the player is accidentally offside. If the player’s team gains no advantage from this, play continues. If the player’s team gains an advantage, a scrum is formed with the opposing team throwing in the ball.”
What did Garces exactly say in that tension-packed 20 seconds to not only change the mind of his colleague but the course of the game and most likely rugby union history?
At the moment we can only speculate but most likely Garces thought that Owens could not avoid being hit by the ball.
The clear problem is that the Laws as they stand allow for both interpretations of the incident and this requires urgent attention from World Rugby.
Specifically the Rugby Committee who are charged with ‘monitoring the Laws of the Game and their effectiveness’ must act to prevent yet another high profile howler.
You may remember the similar scenario that referee Craig Joubert felt compelled to race away from following Australia’s victory over Scotland at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
In an incredibly competitive sporting landscape, rugby union cannot afford to infuriate existing fans and undermine the ongoing efforts to grow the game and attract new supporters, players, sponsors and viewers with such disputable guidelines.
You sense that the status of the game figured strongly in Poite’s re-think and that he was reluctant to play such a defining role in the contest but he only managed to magnify his role.
Would he have reached the same conclusion or sought such clarification if it was the first minute of the match?
Those are not the only questions left unanswered with many querying why no advantage was played that would maybe have seen Leinert-Brown cross for a match-winning try?
Had Owens ‘played’ the ball or merely ‘touched’ it? Others were equally puzzled as to why Read was not penalised for being in front of the restart kick or for taking Williams out in the air?
The watching rugby world were still trying to work it out as two more debateable scrums played out and one final frantic after-the-hooter flourish from the All Blacks was snuffed out by the Lions.
The delay in Poite’s full time whistle just added to a sense of confusion.
To their credit the All Blacks refused to dwell on the decision and both head coach Steve Hansen and Read were gracious following the game knowing all too well that the series should not have come down to the last play and that it was their own shortcomings and not those of the officials that decided the game.
The All Blacks dominated their latest showdown with the Lions with stats showing that they trailed their rivals for a total of just three minutes in the series. But their repeated failure to execute with ball in hand, while under immense pressure from a gusty and regimented Lions defence, proved costly.
Hansen’s frustration surfaced only momentarily post-match and surprisingly he had sympathy and not disdain for Poite and co.
“It’s either offside or isn’t offside, and if we all know it’s offside then it’s offside. But there are too many avenues you can go down,” he said.
“That not the ref’s fault, it’s the rulebook and people running the game need to ask themselves, do we need to make it simple? My answer to that would be yes."
That is one thing we can all agree on.