A deal is a deal

It just takes all the fun out of being a conspiracy theorist when the conspirators don’t even put up a decent pretence anymore. Yes I am talking about Romain Poite’s penalty reversal in the final minutes of the third test of All Blacks against the Lions; the penalty that would have given the game and series to the All Blacks. To get one thing out of the way, I really don’t give a toss about the result of a Lions game. It is the entire Northern Hemisphere of rugby minus, arguably, a couple of French players, up against New Zealand. Effectively it is a multi-national Barbarians game and it is hard to get tribally passionate about it. I am far more passionate about the Highlanders / Crusaders quarter final next week. Then its all about the Bledisloe Cup series against Aussie. How we love to beat Aussie. After that the Southern Hemisphere Rugby championship which will probably be us against the respected old foe, the Saffas. Those are games worth getting your blood pressure up over.  But someone obviously seems to think it was politically, or commercially, important that the Lions, the cream of 190,000 player pool,  at least came out on par with the All Blacks and so back to the open admission of administrator match-fixing.

Ok so full-time is almost up on the clock, the scores are all tied up (although most of All Blacks points from tries and all of the Lions points from penalties awarded, but that’s another story). All Blacks kick deep into Lions territory and the ball is fumbled by the receiver and then caught by a Lions player, Ken Owens, in an offside position. No argument about that, from anyone. Owens realising he has stuffed up drops the ball which is scooped up by Leinert-Brown as he heads off for the try line and the winning try. So the rule is that the referee must allow play to continue to see if the infringement leads to an All Black advantage (ie a try). Before he finally awards the penalty or scrum depending on his ruling of what happened.

Leinart-Brown beating last line of defence as whistle is blown

So, with illegal decision #1, referee Romain Poite immediately blows up the game just as Leinart-Brown beats the immediate defender, with three All Blacks in hot support. Romaine instantly chooses the lesser of two dangers and prevents the try by awarding a penalty to the All Blacks. Then looking at the proximity to the goal posts he realises that the penalty is almost a certainty to be converted to three points and a win to the All Blacks. So he has to buy some time for instructions from head office. He calls for a TMO ruling on the incident even though he has already, illegally, stopped the movement that would probably have resulted in a try. This was to check for possible obstruction by an All Black and confirmation of the offside position. But the real issue was Poite’s decision not to allow play to continue when he clearly saw the real threat of a last minute try to the All Blacks playing out before his eyes. As obvious on the big screen, confirmed by the TMO, there was no All Black interference and that Lions player is definitely offside, penalty to the All Blacks stands. TMO, George Ayoub confirmed the penalty decision, certainly no challenge by sideline referee on the spot, Jaco Peyper, and clearly agreed into his mike by man in the middle Romain Poite. Then in the few seconds it took for Romain to go back to the two captains to announce the result of deliberations as confirming the penalty, Poite acknowledges contact in his earpiece from the far side touchline referee, Jerome Garces with a “Oui Jerome” and a few seconds later Poite utters the magic words that dispel all pretence of a fair decision. “We ‘ave a deal, we ‘ave a deal about the offside from 16; it was ‘accidental off side’ no penalty, play for a scrum.’ So, denied the required ‘advantage option’ that looked likely to lead to a try, then checking with the TMO on his decision (knowing the ‘denied advantage’ simply could not be reinstated) and then having the TMO confirmation of the penalty suddenly reversed to a scrum on yjr opinion solely of the far side touch judge, with no further consultation with the TMO, has to be the most bizarre sequence of decisions in rugby history.

Poite admitted on open mike that a deal had been made behind the scenes and privately passed to him into his earpiece during the few seconds after the penalty decision had been confirmed between him and the TMO, but before he returned to the players to confirm the decision. A deal with whom? Steve Hansen said after the game he accepted the final decision and would not answer media questions about it. And so now it became an “accidental offside” under law 11.6 (which still had to allow the ABs to play on for the probable try) and so the whole series fell flat. The pretence of a fair rugby series without administrator interference had evaporated. That was the ‘pants-down’ moment for the conspirators.

But only the media and the fans are complaining, and that won’t last long. By the time the first Bledisloe Cup game kicks off the incident will only live on in the minds of pub-quizmasters with a rugby theme; no one else will still care about it. Those from coach to water boy know only too well that their lucrative lifestyle is dependent on keeping the sponsors, including Fox Sports and Sky Sports all happy. Predictable outcomes and absence of controversy do not make for maximum viewer ratings and sponsors pay for viewers. A million happy kiwis just do not have the purchasing power of tens of millions of viewers in the northern hemisphere. Steve Hanson knows that, Kieran Read knows that, blind Freddy knows that. Apart from that there was an army of Lions supporters breaking all airport traffic records and adding very significantly to the New Zealand economy and of course we all want them to have enjoyed their tour and ‘y’all come back again real soon’.

But referee bias isn’t just a reality of the professional era, back in the good old amateur days we always accepted that the All Blacks would not win a test series in South Africa because their referees cheated; equally of course the South Africans could never win in New Zealand. Local referees were just tacitly accepted as a home team advantage. And local referees had to turn up at their local pub after the series, who could blame them?

The only real problem I have with this Lions referee match fixing incident from a fan’s viewpoint is that the Lions team was selected at the outset based on a 90:10 proportion defence to offence game plan. Selecting players whose natural skills are for negating free-flowing rugby and selecting a very, very good goal kicker to take advantage of the frustration they cause. Fifteen tries over ten games, including one semi-professional Barbarians team, and five provincial teams is a pretty dismal effort for the cream of the British Isles and Ireland. Don’t get me wrong I like a solid defence play as much as the next man and a totally free running score of twelve tries to nine would bore me senseless. A great game of rugby works around the 50:50 balance of offence and defence plus or minus 10%. But that of course leaves the outcome of the game largely up to players and that may not necessarily suit the investment goals of the sponsors. A game based 90% on defence and played in the dark alleys of rucks and mauls gives so many more opportunities for the outcome to be controlled by the referee and whoever whispers unheard into his earpiece in the few seconds before he makes his call.

If Poite ever gets another international game after that outcome then the administration is openly giving us, the fans, the middle finger. What I would give to see the eye exchange between Kieran Read and Sam Warburton when they shook hands at the end of the game. I suspect the eyes would have been in agreement saying, ‘ What a bad decision for both of us but, if we want the sponsors’ big bucks, then a deal is a deal.’ But somehow it feels like an ominous moment for the credibility and thus the survival of the sport at this global level. The sport is infinitely more exciting than it was when I played; infinitely more accessible; live-streaming video around the globe rather than listening on a crackly radio. And yet, somehow I no longer have the passion I once had for the thrill of the 13:0 win over the Springboks at Carisbrook in 1965 in an era who we only played once every five years, home and away, so we only saw them here once a decade. By comparison the 57:0 win over South Africa in 2017 at North Harbour was actually just a bit sad. We now play them twice a year every year as well as playing South African teams in the Super Rugby series several times a year every year. It is now light entertainment, a lucrative business; it was once a major ‘pride of the nation’ tradition.

So that raises again other little niggly results over recent history. The first cold case to be re examined is the incredible victory of the Japanese team over South Africa in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. The puppet masters of World Rugby see the RWC only as a knockout tournament between eight teams. Another dozen teams are patronisingly included in the tournament to help fund it and to provide a bit of a training run for the final 8 who play for the Cup. But they are included in order to expand the sport globally and thus the global market share of Rugby.

And one of the lightest training runs scheduled for 2015 was for the Springboks’ opening game. The chance to run up a cricket score against a team of lightweight Japanese players,  padded out with a few ‘second stringers’ from the South Pacific nations who were never in the running for their home-country teams.  The team associated with the delicate and fragile image of a blossom was about to be trampled under the thundering hooves of a horde of rampant Springboks. The referee would never been given any instructions from the puppet master; why would he bother? So the referee just refereed what he saw and it was honest refereeing, just as it would be for any ‘friendly match’. The players played and it was honest playing.

But the Japanese did the unthinkable, the unimaginable; they turned down a kick at goal to get a well deserved draw and they played for the try against the bigger team with a desperation to defend their line. And the Blossoms got it! they scored the try against all odds. They won. And at last a game delivered pure, unadulterated  joy. The joy was not only amongst the Japanese supporters, the joy was from the entire rugby world, excluding South Africa. Unless he now wins the trophy, the risk for poor Heyneke Meyer is not just sacking, it may well be imprisonment for high treason. However…………… in a back story, WR had, in its strategy for global expansion, made the very bold decision to award the 2019 RWC to Japan. Seemed a good idea until the cold hard truth dawned that none of the big Japanese corporates were prepared to pick up the tab. Sponsorship deals gathered dust. The public and therefore commercial interest in rugby was very niche. The numbers did not stack up. Huge embarrassment and financial losses awaited WR in 2019. What could they do to generate national Japanese interest in our sport? “I know”, said someone (possibly). South Africa still owes us one from ’95, as I recall.”

It was the grand return of South Videos and analyses of South Africa’s semi final against France strongly suggest that South Africa should not have even got through to the final. It should have been another All Black/ France final. A number of collapsed mauls with the French on attack went unpunished then a try by Benazzi in the last-minute of the game was denied by referee Derek Bevan who then whistled full-time. The suspicions of bias were not appeased when, at the after match function, Bevan was, to the embarrassment of IRB officials, awarded a gold watch by South African Rugby Union president Louis Luyt for his outstanding refereeing.

Bevan hoped the presentation would not be misconstrued, but he accepted the gold watch. Sportingly, Benazzi later said that while he was certain he had crossed the line and scored, the outcome was important for Mandela and the new era for South Africa. I think the world generally concurred. This was a fairytale ending for a nation being welcomed back to the global community and let us not deny it, brought the South African Rand back into World Rugby coffers. Then of course history records that two days before teh final a vomiting and diarrhoea “bug” swept through two thirds of the All Black camp and South Africa won with an extra time penalty; but we can’t blame that on a referee. Probably the South Africans got one back on us for all the times the Southlanders had fed them dodgy oysters the night before their game.

As it turned out Japanese national interest in rugby soared when the brave blossoms beat the goliath of South Africa, 2019 RWC sponsors returned to the negotiating table and South Africa still got through to the playoffs, so it was ‘alls well that ends well’.

But in the same 2015 RWC pool games where Japan performed so admirably, host nation England failed miserably. Australia won a critical final pool game against England that denied England qualification into the playoffs. A total humiliation for England. So if my theory of WR influence in key matches has any validity, how did England, the powerhouse nation of WR, suffer such a humiliation? Who will ever know? However humour me as I speculate on a totally hypothetical post-match telephone conversation between Bernard Lapasset Chairman of World Rugby and Bill Beaumont Chairman of England Rugby, discussing the performance of french referee Romain Poite:

Ringtone: ”ello?”

Bernard, it’s Bill

Monsieur Bill, ‘ow are you?

Pretty pissed off actually Bernard. Bloody convicts got a win; we’re out of the tournament. Heads being lined up for the chopping block as we speak. I could be one of them.

Well we ‘ave a guillotine zat we ‘ave not used for a while, but is still in fine working order I understand. Perhaps?

No time for jokes Bernard. I though we had a deal sorted.

A deal monsieur Bill, je ne comprende?

Over a damned decent cognac at the club, Bernard. About the importance of England getting past Australia and into the quarter finals at least; and the fact that one of your mob was refereeing.

I remember well zees pleasant evening monsieur Bill; ze cognac was indeed quite superb; and I fully agreed with you zat zis was very importante for England to win. Such a pity zen zat zey played, ow do you say…..? like a puck of wunkers.

For pete’s sake Bernard, this was serious; this was big money in the Rugby Union’s coffers. We had an understanding; you were supposed to fix this game. You double crossed us.

Fix? Fix a game monsieur Bill? In ze Rugby World Cup? Surely you are not serious?

Come on Bernard, the Japanese Rugby Union were struggling to get the necessary sponsorship and suddenly a bunch of cobbled together Blossoms beat the bloody Saffas and the Samoans. Now the Blossoms are national heroes with sponsors back home queuing up! Are you saying didn’t have a hand in that?

Ah such brave little Blossoms. Zey played so well did zey not?

And with a noticeable penalty advantage. As I counted it Samoa was out-penalised 17 to 4.

Ah yes ze discipline of Blossoms is so excellent; of ze Samoans, perhaps not so good.

And South Africa? Your little Blossoms didn’t get a bit of a helping hand there?

Ah, zis was just a bad day for ze Afrikaans, but zey recovered, no? still zey qualified. All is ‘appy now?

I don’t give a stuff if the Saffas are happy Bernard, I certainly am far from it.

I am sorry you feel zis way monsieur Bill; I feel zis is a very exciting and successful tournament; and in its own way, England’s loss ‘as added much to ze enjoyment of many fans all around ze world.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Bernard, but over that cognac or three we talked about history; specifically we talked about the quarter finals in Cardiff  in 2007; and about a bloody accommodating English ref. Young Barnes, a man of the silk no less, put his whole career and credibility on the line to get your useless frogs into the semis. Everyone knew we put the fix in for France on that one; and now your man couldn’t make a few calls the right way to get us through the pool? He could easily have denied the Aussies’ second try for a forward pass; we get penalised 9 to 5 against us and then, insult to injury, young Farrell gets yellow-carded with ten to go for a marginally mis-timed tackle when that thug Hooper stayed on the paddock after a vicious, pre-meditated, no-arms shoulder charge.  Australia winning that game is a bloody travesty of justice, Bernard.

‘istory monsieur Bill? 2007 at Cardiff is not ‘istory to ze French. For France ‘istory is two hundred years ago, last June 18 to be précis, at Waterloo.  And a travesty of justice is not from a referee’s whistle. A travesty of justice is five treacherous armies of Europe colluding wiz zat poxy duc de Wellington to defeat ze brave general Bonaparte and zen ‘aving tens of thousands of drunken English barbarian soldiers swarm into Paris, on July 7th to be précis. Zis is ‘istory and zis is travesty of justice to ze people of France, monsieur and today we celebrated the 200 year anniversary of that terrible travesty.

You’re having a laugh, Bernard. Waterloo? This is the twenty bloody first century.

Of course monsieur Bill, as you say I was just ‘aving laugh. I am laughing but truly I am sorry zat England is out of ze tournament. ‘owever I enjoyed dinner and a few drinks with some old rugby friends a few nights ago and one said zat when you called today I should simply say to you: ‘four more years.’ An amusing man is little George Gregan, no?

You’re a bastard Bernard.

Perhaps, monsieur Bill, in France we can never be certain. But now I must end zis little chat. I ‘ave to arrange an enquiry about English coaching staff perhaps trying to influence a referee at ‘alf time? We cannot tolerate any ‘int of impropriety, I am sure you agree. Au revoir monsieur Bill.

Footnote:

Footnote: The reference to Cardiff 2007 was of course the French winning against the All Blacks in the quarter final game of the RWC 2007. The backstory was that the semi final was to be held in Paris and they all needed France to be in that game. However that had a furious AB coach threatening to go public with video clips and stats to demonstrate the lengths the English referee went to to eventually allow the French to claw back and marginally pass the AB’s commanding half time lead. Coach Henry was, after all, facing the firing squad as such failures were not tolerated by NZ Rugby. However Henry was calmed down, did not publish any embarrassing statistics, was re-appointed AB as coach and in the 2011 RWC NZ had a very fortuitous one point win over France in the final. Deal done.

Footnote 2: Over a month after the Lions series, Coach Hanson is asked by media what happened; Hanson confirmed an official ‘please explain’ has been sent to WR, but the WR have declined to explain. Today we are still no closer to an explanation, but Jerome Garces was honoured with the privilege of refereeing the 2019 World Cup Final and Romaine Poite was his assistant referee in that final. An unexpected decision was that a rookie New Zealand referee, Ben O’Keefe, was awarded the other assistant referee position. A deal is a deal.

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