Joubert's indulgence a huge factor for All Blacks

 

The referee’s reluctance to make the hard calls facilitated New Zealand’s victory on a night when they were second best to France

RECALL HOW the two IRFU delegates on the 21-man IRB council who voted for the New Zealand bid in Dublin in November 2005 were castigated for doing so rather than helping to bring the tournament to new territory in Japan? Well, they’re not being castigated now. All those who believed New Zealand would make superb hosts have been thoroughly vindicated. Maybe you had to be there to fully appreciate it, but it was in many, many ways, a great World Cup.

To be there was predictably all-consuming, but in an eminently enjoyable way.

There was colour galore from the nigh-on 100,000 visitors, who couldn’t have been more warmly received by the 4.4 million hosts. As is the norm there, every ground looked resplendent on match days, and the pitches were as lovingly manicured as a garden tended to by a devoted horticulturist.

Unlike June/July tours, it wasn’t unremittingly gloomy, wet and prematurely dark and the country looked beautiful. The organisation was exceptional, and from the laid-back RWC 2011 chief executive officer Martin Sneddon and his staff all the way down, New Zealand is entitled to take a collective bow.

Okay, purely in terms of the rugby, perhaps a good World Cup rather than a great one. For sure, it lacked a classic and, with a curse on many of the tournament’s outhalves for example, from Dan Carter down, there was also a lack of stand-out individual performers.

By contrast, it was a vintage competition for the breakdown destroyers-cum-opensides, with man-of-the-tournament Richie McCaw manfully leading the hosts to the promised land on one foot, David Pocock almost single-handedly helping the Australians to beat South Africa, and the likes of Sam Warburton and Seán O’Brien the stars of their respective teams.

The tier two countries showed up more strongly than ever, with no 100-pointers, and there were some good quarter-finals before things tightened up, as ever in World Cups (in all sports).

Nothing shook up the tournament quite like Ireland’s win over Australia, which shredded all pre-conceived notions and also limited the number of encounters between the Tri Nations and Six Nations to just five. And, save for France being beaten by 20 points against the All Blacks in the pool stages and Ireland’s win over Australia, the other three games saw Wales lose by one point to South Africa and three points to Australia before the All Blacks’ 8-7 win over France last Sunday.

So much for the great divide.

Indeed, Sunday’s taut-as-a-guitar-string final was probably the best of the seven deciders to date. Ultimately you couldn’t begrudge the All Blacks and New Zealand the William Webb Ellis trophy. After the last 24 years of hurt, after all that has plagued them in the last year or so and, then the cruelest injury of all, they deserved it. No country, and no team, has given more to the game of rugby.

Yet for all of the hosts’ magnificent obsession, for all the sympathy toward New Zealand and the All Blacks, on the day itself, justice wasn’t done. This wasn’t entirely surprising either. With Paddy O’Brien as the IRB’s referees’ chief, everything was in the All Blacks’ favour. Then put yourself in Craig Joubert’s position. Who would want to give France the penalty from which they would have denied New Zealand again in Sunday’s endgame?

Recall New Zealand’s gripe with Wayne Barnes for their defeat to France four years ago, or the way Wales blame Alain Rolland for their semi-final exit. Neither performance was remotely on a par with the combined cock-up by messrs Kaplan and Allan for Mike Phillips’s try in Cardiff last March, or even Barnes’s far more one-sided display in Ireland’s Grand Slam match in the same city two years ago, but then again perhaps all this depends on your nationality. Referees are easy to blame.

But as Lawrence Dallaglio noted with increasing annoyance as ITV co-commentator, every marginal decision went the All Blacks’ way. The penalty count was 10-7 to the All Blacks, along with two indirect free-kicks to them as well, but by rights it should at least have been the other way around.

Even in his career of magnificent larceny at the breakdown, the brilliant McCaw has assuredly never been given such largesse in this area. The faintly ridiculous 5-2 penalty count in the first 25 minutes set the tone, with one set of breakdown laws for the All Blacks and another for the French. The penalty against Thierry Dusautoir for holding on when trying to turn his body on the deck after being held there by McCaw was decidedly one-sided, and led to the lineout from which Tony Woodcock scored.

There were also at least three high tackles by All Blacks which went unpunished, along with Richard Kahui taking out Vincent Clerc and a combination of McCaw and Kaino taking out Imanol Harinordoquy in the air to a couple of Piri Weepu box kicks, and a couple of very harsh penalties against Jean-Baptiste Poux at scrum time. For one of them Owen Franks clearly went to ground first. There were also contrasting offside interpretations and injury time-outs (witness Parra’s and Cruden’s).

Quite how Joubert did not ping Brad Thorn for holding on when Dusautoir contested the ball was mildly astonishing, but the coup de grace was Kaino not releasing after the tackle and then playing the ball off his feet for what would have been a 76th-minute, 38-metre shot at goal for France to take the lead. All of Joubert’s body language then and throughout much of the last quarter especially was of someone who seemingly didn’t want to know.

This was on a par with that other South African, Andre Watson, whose performance enabled Australia to take a superior English team into extra-time in the 2003 decider.

The All Blacks were the best team in the world over the last four years (again!), and were the best team in the tournament, but they weren’t the best team in the final.

If you’re French, especially one of their players, that must rankle, and there’s still something fundamentally wrong with a sport where a referee’s interpretation counts for so much.

Still a great tournament though.