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.
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.
Footnote: Over a month later Hanson is asked by media what happened; Hanson confirmed an official ‘please explain’ has been sent to IRB, but the IRB have declined to explain. Two years later we are 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 New Zealand referee, Ben O’Keefe, was awarded the other assistant referee position. A deal is a deal.