Pity Sexton's kick and referee Owens fell short
To understand why a transformed Ireland lost in Christchurch, one has to examine several key decisions by the official, writes LIAM TOLAND
I’VE LONG since understood that when you dance with the bear, the bear decides when the music stops. Last Saturday Ireland danced with the All Blacks toe to toe in Christchurch and although it was Dan Carter who drop-kicked the final nail into Ireland it wasn’t the Kiwis who decided when the music stopped. To understand why Ireland lost it is imperative to delve into our performance and the Kiwis’ but crucially, that of referee Nigel Owens.
The following isn’t the random mutterings of a disgruntled Irish man vexed at a loss, but is rather based on facts which when strung together, had a real bearing on the result.
Clearly Owens can only referee what he sees so in the interest of fair play, I’ll only discuss what he has seen, so I’ve added times to all the points.
On 20 minutes Kiwi blindside Adam Thomson carries into Brian O’Driscoll, with the exceptionally intelligent Rory Best buttressing him as Richie McCaw supports Thomson. They hit the deck and Best, believing he is part of the tackle, stands up and contests the ball. Owens pings him, stating ‘You’re still on your feet, you’re not the tackler, then you have to go back around’. Best might argue but that appears fair; 3-10.
Eight minutes later, McCaw takes a diagonal in field into the arms of Dan Tuohy, who swings him to the ground but doesn’t roll away quick enough. A penalty is a fair call from Owens; 6-10.
As the All Blacks up the ante on 31 minutes and 45 seconds, Mike Ross lunges in while McCaw has his hands on the ball at the base. Ross, who was superb, is a fraction rusty from lack of games and concedes a penalty, as interpreted by Owen. Most referees will give a slight advantage to the “scrumhalf” in order to ensure the flow of ball; 9-10.
On 39 minutes and 22 seconds, Cian Healy carries into contact with All Black secondrow Sam Whitelock, who gets him to ground with the hovering Andrew Hore immediately in to steal the ball. Hore is in so low the next arriving Irish has to get in violently and lower to prevent a steal. That’s exactly what Fergus McFadden and Tuohy manage, perfect body height with a very strong leg pump to drive Hore out of the way and over the ball. Beyond the drive, McFadden goes to ground but with no material effect on the ball or the All Black ability to contest the ball. Owens pings McFadden, declaring ‘off your feet’.
Carter’s subsequent 50-metre attempt at half-time falls short but Owens’ call should be remembered in the opening minutes of the second half. From the All Black kick-off, McCaw contests, winning the ball back. I count 12 tackle areas (breakdowns) where All Blacks go off their feet in the exact same way as McFadden had done minutes earlier. The result is free-flowing continuity from the All Blacks, leading to a converted try; 16-10.
Before we get to Owens’ scrum calls there is the interpretation of the tackler. On 59 minutes and 19 seconds, Tony Woodcock picks from a Ben Franks breakdown and heads dangerously close to the Irish line. Seán O’Brien initially bumps him before Woodcock hits the deck. In that movement, O’Brien detaches from contact and re-engages over the ball and forces the steal. Owens’ interpretation is O’Brien used the floor to support himself; 19-13. This decision would be fair if the following hadn’t happened.
On 47 minutes and 27 seconds, Sexton, on the Kiwi 10-metre line wraps around, Leinster style, to offload to the powerful Brian O’Driscoll on a hard line into Carter. The All Black outhalf swing-tackles him to the deck and while remaining in contact, swings back to his feet, failing to disengage. The subsequent recycle takes 10 seconds and the All Blacks are back in position; danger averted. Why was this not a penalty to Ireland in a very kickable position?
As difficult as the above is to fathom the following is worse. Firstly, Ireland demolish the All Black scrum on 62 minutes and 20 seconds to gain a penalty; 19-16. On 70 minutes and 2 seconds with the precedent set, Eoin Reddan puts the ball into the Irish scrum and the All Blacks are hammered backwards but no penalty as Owens chooses a reset. The reset, on 70 minutes 57 seconds is once again smashed by the Irish and the All Blacks buckle, concede a wheel, but again no penalty.
Four minutes later with the score 19-19, Ireland are in the All Blacks’ half with a put in. The initial hit is good but under immense pressure, sub tighthead Ben Franks drops his bind and Owens, standing right in front of the action, calls a reset; why no penalty? Considering the previous scrums where Ireland had totally demolished the All Blacks the next few moments are bizarre.
On the reset in the 75th minute, Healy, summoning energy from the depths, once again hammers into Franks, who once again drops his bind and shunts backwards. With this, his openside, Sam Cane, disengages from his scrummaging position. Now Franks has no bind and loses a vital scrummager behind him and therefore is powerless. It is criminal that Owens’ interpretation is ‘not a straight wheel, you are running it around’. Due to the preceding actions from Franks and Cane, Healy had no opposition. Once again with the score 19-19 and Ireland in the All Black half, Owens has decided when the music stops.
Ireland managed to change their defensive structures from last week. Starting with much more accurate box kicks afforded the chasing green line a chance to pressurise the All Black wingers, which they did, forcing errors.
The Irish contested much more accurately in the lineout, depreciating the value of their midfield, especially Sonny Bill Williams, who was a shadow of himself. When the All Black midfield got on the ball the Irish were much narrower in defence and affording no light for the Kiwis to attack. The line itself was much more aggressive, so much so Sonny Bill, Israel Dagg and Julian Savea were anonymous.
Of all the performers last Saturday I can’t say enough for Healy and Donnacha Ryan, who summoned superhuman energy levels to remain brilliant for 80 minutes. My moment of the match was where Leinster met Munster following the late hit on Rob Kearney.
Rewind the tape but look where Piri Weepu catches the ball (half-way line exactly) and watch as the scene unfolds as Ryan instructs his captain to place the ball three metres further on! It’s such a pity that kick and Owens fell short.