Want refereeing consistency, take a look in the mirror

Disclaimer: You got me. I’m a Kiwi. A Kiwi who has just penned an article about the refereeing in the Rugby World Cup Final.

You’re expecting these words to be bitter, right? Well, I cannot promise I won’t slip into those areas. But I can tell you one thing. This won’t be an article about whether the refereeing Team of Four (TO4) cost the All Blacks the game or the technical accuracy of their decisions.

Such ponderings, much like a referee’s decision, can only be subjective. And at the end of the day, rugby lives and dies by one objective fact. Springboks 12, All Blacks 11. A single lousy point. A single lousy point the Bokke refused to give up. A single lousy point that makes the Boks very worthy champions. Now, it might be considered bad form to muse about referees in the aftermath of a fantastic World Cup.

But if I wait for Damian Willemse to stop partying, I may never get pen to paper. So, I’ve made peace that this could read as bitter. But writing is cathartic, and bitter can taste just fine if moderated. After all, the perfect Negroni comes with a peel of orange.

So, if I’m not claiming moral victory for the All Blacks, what am I claiming?

We as rugby players, coaches, fans, and pundits are asking the contemporary refereeing ensemble for the impossible.

This is based on a personal belief that the standard of refereeing at the 2023 World Cup was the highest ever. I have no evidence of this fact outside of the time-honoured eye test. But, from what I have read and listened to throughout the cup, and that is a lot, most seem to concur. So, if I’m right, why have so many people been so angry? Or, more honestly, why was I so angry two Saturdays ago?

This essay explores this question through the lens of two rugby cliches. A set of cliches that appear as ironclad truths in isolation but prove to be hopeless contradictions in concert. The first cliche comes steeped in rugby’s romance.

A belief that “rugby is too beautifully complex for referees to get every decision right.” We are told to live with this fact and unconditionally love the game for its glorious imperfections. The second arrives born from technology, holding that “a TMO must intervene and ensure the right outcome”. We have yet to properly define the instances that demand such divine intervention. Instead, they appear self-evidently at various stages of games, often with help from the local broadcaster. And when they do, it’s to hell with romance; we moderns demand accuracy at all costs.

Cliche #1: Referees can’t get every decision right. Live with it

I want to look at two incidents that support cliche 1’s view of the world. Alternatively, you can just listen to any podcast after the World Cup Final and hear every pundit quote it as fact.

The first happens after 17 minutes and 45 seconds. The All Blacks have clawed it back to three points, and Aaron Smith clears from the restart. A phase later, Duane Vermeulen carries into contact. Ardie Savea rides the contact, stays on his feet, seems to release, and jackals the ball. Wayne Barnes penalises Savea. Now, I’m biased, but it looked harsh live and looks harsher on replay.

And on seeing the replay, even Wayne Barnes seems to admit he got it wrong. Although, this reading may be rewriting history. Instead, Barnes is probably showing why good communication skills are one of the reasons he’s reffing the final. Now, if you know rugby, you know these breakdown penalties are symptomatic of the early exchanges. You just hope your team takes note, adapts, and, if they’re good enough, cash in. Plus, three points in the 18th minute won’t cost you a World Cup, right? Unfortunately, an argument is now being made to claim it did. Why didn’t Barnes just reverse his decision!? Well, I won’t make this argument. Ruck penalties, as crucial as they are, should only be given by the person with the most sensory inputs: the referee. And I prefer real-time vibes to slow-mo gripes.

Ardie Savea of New Zealand and teammates talk to Referee Wayne Barnes during the Rugby World Cup Final match between New Zealand and South Africa at Stade de France on October 28, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

The second incident is in the 79th minute. The All Blacks are building. You feel this is it. Our last chance. Rieko Ioane pokes his nose through. But he strays too close to a man with no time for noses. Kwagga Smith is on him in a flash. Pouncing like a cat, Kwagga lands on all fours, swiping the ball to safety. “It’s a f–king penalty!” I yell, and not for the first time. I’ve been pathetically cursing all of the All Black’s previous turnovers. And, of course, I’m right. How could I not be? I mean, I’m in a pub, watching on the angle, six Guinesses deep, praying that the All Blacks score and prevent me from having a very public breakdown.

Twitter has since vindicated me. I’ve seen the still images. Kwagga’s hand is on the floor. He’s not supporting his own weight. The stills also show Wayne Barnes standing only a metre from that ruck. But Barnes knows -better than me – that a still image tells us nothing of reality.

Kwagga was too sharp, Rieko slightly too isolated, and the moment too big. Green 21 took things into his own hands (both of them), risked it all and won. Was Kwagga supporting his body weight? Who cares is the right answer to that question. And if you’re not satisfied. Then, wander over to Twitter. You’ll find a still that will validate your truths.

As you may gather from my last sentence, cliche #1 has helped me come to terms with the loss. After all, understanding just how far to push at ruck time is the sign of a great team. Richie McCaw’s All Blacks built a dynasty on it. And the referee doesn’t and shouldn’t have to get every ruck correct to have officiated a great game. This begs the question: if it’s good enough for the referee, why isn’t it good enough for the TMO?

Cliche #2: We demand TMO intervention to ensure we get the right outcome! Well sometimes

From what I have read and heard post-World Cup Final, most agree that the TMO was right to intervene and disallow Aaron Smith’s try. Byrn Hall, ex-Crusaders half-back, admitted on the Aotearoa Rugby pod he would’ve hated to have seen it awarded against New Zealand. This comment from the Roar appears representative of the general consensus: “I prefer accuracy especially when it comes to critical decisions such as tries…I think [the TMO should intervene] as long as it part of the movement that ends up a try.” But what defines a critical decision? Is it a try? After all, as the Boks have proven, tries don’t tend to decide World Cup Finals. And it wasn’t Ardie’s missed knock-on that made Richie Mo’unga skin three Boks. So, I will take another view of Smith’s try, pushing against sentiment to make an impassioned plea to moderate our desire for accuracy.

It’s 52 minutes and 50 seconds. 14 vs 14. All Blacks win a line out close to the Boks’ 10m line. It’s messy, but Barnes says no knock-on, confirming three times to whoever’s asking. We bash away at the Green wall for a few phases—at least more than two. Then Jordie Barrett finds a small seam. Momentum. It gets shifted out to Mo’unga. Kurt-Lee Arendse is on him. Richie skips past him, slips Damian de Allende, and then sells the other Damian, setting up an Aaron Smith swan dive. It’s a thing of beauty.

I’m so animated that I’ve caused a beer spillage. Thankfully, it’s a Kiwi’s beer – we’re an even mix in this North London pub – so he doesn’t mind. We scored, that’s all that matters. And then we hear Tom Foley. He’s in Barnes’ ears.

“Barnesy, I’m about to show you a knock-on from Black 8.” That messy line-out. Bloody hell. I’d forgotten all about it. Ardie tries to explain he didn’t touch it. But general vibes suggest he’s knocked it on. Looking at the video, Barnesy agrees, but he doesn’t let Foley have the final say, ruling the first offence to be Green playing the jumper in the air. It’s a Black penalty. Right outcome delivered. We go again.

Ian Foster, Head Coach of New Zealand, looks on as he walks past The Webb Ellis Cup during the Rugby World Cup Final match between New Zealand and South Africa at Stade de France on October 28, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by Michael Steele – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Jordie kicks for the line at 54 minutes and 28 seconds. Richie’s magic has been erased, but the time it took to produce it has not. Sam Whitelock’s on, and he calls to Scott Barrett at the back. Barrett takes cleanly 10m out. The Boks sack. Ardie drives forward, wrestling with Eben Etzebeth. The best two players in the world. The contest we’ve paid to see. Ardie’s only a couple of metres out when the ball spills free. Barnes calls the knock-on and signals for Siya Kolisi to rejoin the fray. Moment lost. Or is it? The replay flashes up on the screen.

Buried deep in the ruck is Deon Fourie. He’s ripped the ball free illegally. Dark arts that on another day could’ve proved match-winning. But not today; the computer says no. Aaron Smith complains to the touchie, who walks over to Barnesy. They chat, and Barnesy blows a penalty, explaining to the Boks, “I’ve just had comms from my team. He’s on his knees, and then it’s a strip. I thought it was a knock-forward. It’s a penalty.” The TO4 double down, arriving at the right outcome once again. And I was baying for it this time. I’ll deal in hypocrisies for a seven-pointer. Shame on me.

It’s 56 minutes and 35 seconds and Brodie Retallick claims the line-out this time. We maul and ruck for a minute before Jordie loops it over to Mark Telea. He wriggles free, as does the ball. And Beauden Barrett swoops and scores at 57 minutes and 40 seconds. The black cheers at the pub are muted, fearing the worst. Barnes blows try, and the overhead on the pass looks 50/50. But, surprisingly, the TO4 award us the try with little deliberation. Five minutes and two indiscriminate interventions later, we arrive where we started, with Beaudie scoring on the same patch of turf where Nuggy had left a divot. So, were the interventions worth it? My gut tells me we would’ve been better off letting nature take its course.

I know I am writing this after my team has lost. A place where I should be wary about mounting this kind of argument. One could also isolate the events that led from Smith’s disallowed try to Barrett’s score as specific to the World Cup final. But this would be to ignore the broader malaise of which these events are representative. A malaise from which no team, not mine or yours, will ever be immune. A malaise of inconsistency that we all must address. And, if we want consistency, we need to look in the mirror and ask what kind of consistency?

I have a cynical theory about calling for consistency in the aftermath of defeat. It can appear the last resort of a sore loser who’s pining for something, anything, to add a modicum of respect to their post-match bitterness.

Trust me, I would know. Now, I am being provocative, but it’s hard to see how we can demand consistency from referees when we don’t hold ourselves to the same account. I ask you not to read this essay as a Luddite’s call to turn our back on the TMO. Technology can and should play a key role in making our game safer, fairer, and better. But doing so means clearly defining our tolerance for its intervention.

The right outcome should also mean the right outcome for rugby. Not just the right outcome for your team. An outcome that empowers the on-field referee to protect the players, interpret the laws, and let the rugby speak for itself. And on that note, I want to finish my catharsis by celebrating the things Barnsey let happen. Good rugby things born from a mix of cunning, skill, and risk. To Kwagga’s balancing hand, to Richie’s erased goosey, and to Faf’s aborted scrum, I raise a Negroni. Bitter-sweet to the end. See you next year, Bokke. Enjoy the spoils.

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