One month ago, Ian Foster raised eyebrows in the rugby world when after the All Blacks had just finished thrashing Italy 96-17, he seemingly took a shot at the grinding, attritional nature of the South Africa-Ireland match from a few days earlier in comparison to the free-flowing nature of his own team’s cricket score.
Many chose to interpret “at some point the world’s got to decide which game they’d rather watch” as code for “we play rugby the right way”, which needless to say, didn’t go down very well in certain circles.
But after a semi-final and a final in which the main talking points have been the uninspiring style of play and the influence of the referees and TMO on rugby’s showpiece, his comments are now looking oddly prophetic.
The seeds of the current state of the game have been sown for some time, but it is in the last 2 weeks that we have seen the true consequences of what rugby has turned itself into over the last decade. Most of the best international teams, as Irish pundit Bernard Jackman astutely pointed out earlier in the tournament, don’t actually want the ball, and they certainly don’t want it in their own half. If teams such as France base their whole gameplan around not going more than a few phases with the ball even when conditions are in their favour, it wasn’t surprising that with the autumn weather having recently arrived at the tournament, the South Africa-England semi-final turned into a dirge.
And so it was in the final too, which unfortunately saw even worse weather conditions than that semi. And while it was South Africa who ultimately lifted the trophy with their 3rd successive 1 point victory, New Zealand fans and indeed a large part of the rugby world was left lamenting the poor spectacle, punctuated by negative tactics and constant TMO interference. Certainly the All Blacks missed 2 crucial kicks at goal, either of which would have likely given them victory, but with a South African team looking out of ideas with 20 minutes to go and resorting to multiple long range drop goal attempts, it isn’t just the result but the nature of the game itself that is proving a bitter pill to swallow for non-South Africans.
In the fallout some have noted the superiority of the All Blacks in most of the key statistical areas. They had the better of the possession and territory, ran for 100 more metres with ball in hand and beat 23 more defenders, to name a few. And while it is tempting to cite these stats when explaining why New Zealand probably should have won, the dirty little secret is that these areas are no longer a reliable indicator of success on the scoreboard in international rugby. In New Zealand’s 12 losses in the Ian Foster era, they won the possession battle in 7 of them. They ran for more metres in 9 of them. They beat more defenders in all, yes all, 12.
That, some would argue, is rugby’s issue in a nutshell.
Similarly hard to swallow was the influence of the match officials. As well as the three on-field referees, the spectre of the TMO now hangs over proceedings, attempting to scrutinize all 30 players from 20 different camera angles, their voice constantly butting into the referee’s ear from above.
And while criticism of rugby referees as individuals has gone too far and become a crutch for the team on the losing side, there can be little doubt that this is another problem of rugby’s own making. It should be no surprise that once the game is over, fans are playing TMO and attempting to nitpick every little decision or non-decision as well. The current system is implying perfection but not achieving it, which naturally leads to fan frustration with constant interruptions in play and nothing but inconsistency to show for it. Viewers are justifiably confused as to why we went back multiple phases to spot a little knock on and rub out what had been up until then, the final’s most exciting moment (Aaron’s Smith disallowed try), but then an obvious knock-on, that half of the Stade de France must have seen live (Faf de Klerk’s at the base of the scrum) isn’t spotted by any of those officials or their multitude of cameras.
The other factor that had been widely forewarned for some time was the influence cards might have in a big game. While World Rugby has obviously dramatically lowered the threshold for what constitutes a cardable offence in the last 5-10 years, we were all nervously waiting for the day that a card (or cards) had an impact on a match of this magnitude. And as far as impacts go, they don’t get much bigger than a red card on New Zealand’s captain with 50 minutes still left to play in a World Cup Final. We could go back and forth on whether by the letter of the law the card was deserved (it probably was) but at the end of the day the issue for me is not whether the call was correct by these particular officials, but whether, to paraphrase Mr Foster again, this is the game we want going forward. Even if the referees were technically correct when they told us there was ‘no obvious mitigation’ in Cane’s tackle, that does little to assuage the empty feeling we get as fans in these situations.
Do we want to taint the game’s showpiece event for an accident, or would we rather the players stay on the field unless they’ve performed a particularly deliberate or dirty piece of foul play? That debate will rage on, but either way this is yet another unfortunate situation of rugby’s own making. Fans now cheer just as loudly for cards against the opposing team as they do for their own tries. When play has stopped and the TMO is studying one of his many replays, fans hiss and scream at the big screen at the slightest glimpse of potentially law-breaking play as if they are a professional wrestling crowd. They know how common and how important cards have become. Proponents will claim this is the byproduct of upholding the laws and player safety – but there is no lamer sight in modern rugby than the theatrics that accompany the referee stopping play and calling upon their TMO for another trip to mitigation station.
All of this will be cold comfort to the All Blacks themselves. Even if they want to speak their minds on these issues they wouldn’t do so publicly, especially after losing a World Cup final. Foster’s comments a month ago are likely the closest we will get to recognition that the players and coaches sometimes feel the same frustration at the game as we fans feel. And after last Saturday, there’s quite a lot of frustration out there to go around right now.
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