AUSTRALIAN rugby writers are in the seventh heaven after their national team, the Wallabies, ensured the ouster of the defending champions, South Africa, in the world cup rugby tournament over the weekend.
Australia was behind the Springboks in every possible aspect of the game but still ran out 11-9 winners. In the process of trying to explain this, writers from the Australian side have put forward every possible reason – the relative age of the two teams (Australia had a much younger team), the lack of stragegy on the part of the South Africans, the courage of the Australians, etc etc
Nobody, but nobody, is willing to look at the fact that the presence of a referee from the southern hemisphere played a big role in the Australian win. Not that the referee was one-sided and favoured Australia – no, he had a very good game. But his interpretation of the rules went Australia’s way due to the prevailing circumstances.
Let me explain. In rugby (union, not league), when a person is tackled and goes to ground, the tackler has to release the tackled player. The tackled player has to release the ball and when he does so he positions his body in a manner that protects the ball. His teammates crowd around him to protect the ball so that opposition players cannot get at it. And the opposition also piles in, trying to get hold of the ball. The resulting mass of bodies is known as a ruck.
For a player from the opposition to legally get hold of the ball, he has to be on his feet when trying to wrestle it out. He cannot play the ball when his feet are off the ground. If he does so, then he will be penalised.
But given the mass of bodies, it is extremely difficult for the referee to notice if players are indulging in illegal tactics – for example, some player at the bottom of the ruck may prevent the other side from getting the ball out by holding on to it, something he is not allowed to do. The attacking team will always want to get the ball out as soon as possible in order to prevent the other team from organising its defence.
Experienced referees know that foul play is going on when the ball repeatedly keeps taking a long time to emerge from a ruck. Or when it keeps repeatedly popping out to the team which is defending. They watch and bide their time and, the moment they spot an infringement, they send a player off. Welshman Nigel Owens did this during the quarter-final between Argentina and New Zealand, catching an Argentine player late in the second half.
But the referee for the Australia-South Africa game, Bryce Lawrence of New Zealand, did not penalise either side for this tactic. And Australia had the upper hand in this department because they have a talented openside flanker, David Pocock, who knows how to slow the ball down and not be caught. South Africa’s specialist in this tactic, Heinrich Brussow, had to unfortunately leave the field with a rib injury even before a quarter of the game was completed.
Had Pocock been pinged – and repeatedly, as he deserved to be – the South African fly-half, Morne Steyn, would have ensured victory for his team by converting the resultant penalties. Steyn is a very accurate kicker from any distance less than 40 metres. Unfortunately for him, two of the penalties that his team was awarded were well beyond his range; the specialist Springboks kicker from longer distances, Francois Steyn, did not play that day as he was injured.
Only English writers have referred to the illegal tactics that Pocock employed because it was apparent that the ball could not be taking so long to emerge from rucks unless someone was keeping it there by illegal means. But it is easy to dismiss their writing as sour grapes because England was beaten in the quarter-finals – and Englishmen like nothing better than to slag off Australia.
This is no slur on Pocock – every team tries this tactic, some are more successful due to the skill of the player involved. The New Zealand skipper, Richie McCaw, is a master at this, even better than Pocock. But he knows his referees well and plays to their likes and dislikes.
In the semi-finals, Australia will come up against New Zealand. The official for the game is South African Craig Joubert who did a marvellous job in the quarter-finals when he controlled the Wales-Ireland game.
If Pocock tries the same tactics that he used successfully against the Springboks, Australia will leak penalties like a sieve. Joubert is a strict disciplinarian; he puts his stamp on the game early and then makes himself more or less invisible. That is a thing that few referees do these days – they love being in the limelight.
Teams from the southern hemisphere know Joubert well and respect him no end. He does not try to be front and centre and make the game all about him. But he comes down like a ton of bricks on infringers. Given this, the same tactics that worked against South Africa will not work for Australia on Sunday.