Dear International Rugby Board,
It’s probably the biggest let down in professional sport as a spectator, the one that leaves a sour taste in your mouth, leaves you disillusioned and hurting more than anything else.
An “honourable” loss? A match not living up to the hype? Injuries? There’s no doubt they hurt, but nope. None of the above.
It’s the feeling that a genuine contest was destroyed before any of the above even had a chance to occur through obviously incorrect officiating.
Before we go much further, I’ll put on the record that I’m a proud and patriotic Australian, a lover of sport and a girl with rugby flowing through my veins, so this is not what may be viewed as the moanings of someone who watched their team slaughtered by an official. It is merely the questioning of a neutral fan of the game who witnessed what could have potentially been one of the contests of the decade be stripped back to be two teams unsure of what plays would be effective, what rules would be policed and second guessing a lot of their own styles of play.
I’m sure you know the background – the All Blacks v the Springboks at Eden Park, both teams undefeated in the Rugby Championship; the Springboks in blistering form coming off a comprehensive victory in Brisbane and the All Blacks at less than full strength. It was quite possibly the Springboks best hope of victory in Auckland for the first time since 1937. Yes, I know – 76 years and all that – but sometimes, history means nothing. After all, the Boks had just broken a 41 year hoodoo at Suncorp Stadium the very week before. It seemed that the match was going to promise so much.
It appears I wasn’t the only one to think so – Eden Park was sold out, the ratings boomed throughout New Zealand, South Africa and around the rugby community; and why wouldn’t it? I mean, your ratings system had meant that the global number one ranking was on the line. There was so much at stake!
Even the Auckland weather seemed to realise the magnitude of what was meant to occur, with the rain clearing up before kick off. The anticipation was bang on the money and I was positively palpitating come kick off time on Saturday.
The typical bruising and physical encounter was more than forthcoming – hard hitting was always going to be a signature from the match. The All Blacks drew first blood (which was always going to be expected, I guess) and as the rain started to fall again from the ninth minute, I thought we’d have a real contest on our hands between arguably two of the best kickers in the world. It was living up to expectation.
And then it happened.
Just over 16 minutes in and the bone crunching hit from Bismarck du Plessis on Dan Carter that reverberated around New Zealand so much, one could be forgiven for thinking Auckland had been hit with an earth tremor.
Of course a scuffle was always going to break out. The top two nations in the world were playing with more heart and passion than what many sports can collectively exude. Of course Dan Carter was going to be hurt. He was hit completely out of his blind spot by someone with the strength of an armoured tank, the ferocity of a hungry lion and the marksmanship of a sniper driving him to the turf. But under your own law and guidelines, it was one hundred percent legal.
I was thankful that the teams weren’t penalised for the scuffle; there were no punches nor anything horribly untoward involved. But what happened next staggered me.
It’s not that your appointed referee, Romain Poite, didn’t see initially what happened and asked for assistance from the TMO. That, I can appreciate. I mean, the guy had a packed stadium and 30 huge men surrounding him. But after asking for assistance from the TMO, I was shocked to see him go against the recommendations and yellow card du Plessis.
Now, I’m more than happy to admit that I’m a fan of du Plessis and have been for a long time. But it’s not about that.
You know what? It’s not even about the ineptitude of making a mistake of such grievous proportions on a pitch for me, although many (most likely South Africans) will disagree.
It’s about the obvious lack of trust that one of your officials has in the judgement of fellow officials in a pressure situation.
One thing I learned very early on in my sporting life was this: there are always three teams on a pitch, a court, a field. Always. The two teams competing – and the officials.
Like the competing teams, officials need to have trust in each other to be able to perform at their peak; they need to be able to rely on their “team” to back them up when they’re stuck in a corner; they need to have the knowledge that no matter what happens, they’re not on their own.
Romain Poite shattered that on Saturday night.
As a neutral, I can begrudgingly take out of the equation that a match was effectively destroyed by bad officiating. I can take out of the equation that a further yellow card to du Plessis meant an automatic red card for the hooker and subsequent SANZAR hearing this week. I can accept a bad decision or four on the pitch. I don’t want them repeated ever again, but I can accept them. Everyone has bad days.
What I can’t accept is that Poite sees himself above his co-officials in the heat of the moment – that he believes his judgement is above someone with video evidence and that his “team” are effectively pointless.
He has form. He has previously referred matters to his TMO, only to rule against what the TMO recommends. It’s not a once off occurrence, yet time and time again, other officials are asked to be a part of a “team” with a man who clearly holds little respect for his fellow officials.
This isn’t about how many yellow cards Poite has handed out in recent times (9 yellow cards in 8 matches before Saturday’s match) or about his reputation for over policing the scrum. It’s about how much influence one man can have on a match even with the technology and aides put in place to avoid errors and influence of such magnitude.
As a result of Poite’s influence, the ripple effect has occurred. The rugby community was potentially robbed of a match that could have been anything. SANZAR has to deal with a compulsory disciplinary hearing for a player that probably would not have eventuated and clean up the mess. The Springboks could potentially be without one of their star players for their next match at home. SANZAR will, inevitably, be targeted for being biased or over officious through no fault of their own.
And you, the IRB, have an official that goes against your own conventions and technologies.
I understand you will probably be flooded with complaints, abuse and heaven knows what this week. I understand that you probably are most weeks. But when you have someone on the payroll effectively tarnishing the brand that you work so hard to polish, I truly believe something must be done.
Poite may be quietly sanctioned. He may be suspended, fined or quite simply ignored. Given that it was also Poite’s 38th birthday on match day, you may choose to simply forget what happened at Eden Park and move on.
But rugby lost some of its shine on Saturday night. It lost some believers. Most of all, it lost what all of us had been hoping for some time – a classic battle of the titans that would cement the sport on top of the world. No one deserved to lose that – least of all the All Blacks and Springboks.
Don’t let that spark be tarnished any further, please. Rugby deserves better than that.