Unbearable tension in Cape Town. The very last kick downed Ulster and brought victory to the Stormers.
The clock was coloured the deepest shade of red when Mannie Libbok’s conversion of Warwick Gelant’s try went high and towards the top of the post. Just inside? Or not? That was the critical question – in the laws, a kick going over the top of the post is not a score. For equity, and complete credibility, a review was necessary, but referee Mike Adamson and TMO Ben Whitehouse remained silent.
Given the crucial import of this decisive moment, the officials needed to do better, and demonstrate that the on-field decision was right, or wrong. Unless we’ve all been missing something, that’s why the technology is there.
Adamson’s performance will be studied by both teams. Issues abounded, particularly at the breakdown. Leading up to the vital score, the Stormers appeared to fly off their feet and go beyond the ball, ensuring possession was protected.
After Gelant dived over, several Ulster knees needlessly slid into his ribs. He was rightly angered, and a cardable offence went unnoticed by both referee and TMO; not good enough. In a decision with a low degree of difficulty, the officials had been correct earlier when issuing a red to Adre Smith, for contact to the eye area of Iain Henderson.
Smith, found guilty of biting Munster’s Niall Scannell last October, can expect no sympathy from the judiciary. I’m not at all sure why players, capable of such foul acts, have any place in the game.
That red may have lulled Ulster into a false sense of security, and their energy levels clearly dropped as they soaked up wave after wave of intense pressure during the last 15 minutes. In the immediate aftermath, a remarkably calm Dan McFarland said Ulster didn’t deserve to win, but he’ll know too that they could have.
They had a disastrous start, conceding an early try. In fact, Adamson was haring in under the posts to award a penalty try, when he received information that one had already been scored. The referee was very fortunate, there were no obvious reasons for a penalty try, and a team mauling over the goal-line obviously wants to go to ground.
All in all, there were too many refereeing questions. Ulster were denied a penalty for the ball being slapped forward and into touch. Another went missing when Stuart McCloskey was lifted above the horizontal and dropped, not a card, but clearly a penalty. Both would have given Ulster much needed positive field positions.
Then the Stormers rightly looked askance at Stewart Moore’s scoring pass to Robert Baloucoune, which very much seemed to leave Moore’s hands in a forward direction. That’s the criterion for judging passes, and nobody would have been surprised to see it called; but the officials, the only ones who mattered, decided it was a-okay.
Adamson’s performance review would make for an interesting read, but we will not be privy to it. It may well resemble one of my own dreaded school maths reports, “needs to do so much better, will move him to a lower class”.
Last time out, this column ventured to say that the Bulls were not travelling north to lose.
It’s tempting to claim exceptional wisdom and say that was my forecast of the result. But the truth is that my expectation was a Leinster win, probably a one-score game; certainly not by the crazily wide margins, and odds, which the bookies were offering.
The first signs that something different was in the air was the Bulls’ powerful snuffing out of Leinster’s opening attacks. Against probably all other URC opponents, they would have opened their account then – the vigorous defending pointed to a real challenge.
Leinster were out of sorts, and, coming off the back of a 12-try thrashing of Glasgow, they were also undercooked. In the event they didn’t measure up, and were well beaten; the history books will show a one-point game, but that is not the real story. Leinster were outgunned, overpowered at crucial moments, with captain James Ryan not playing near to the level of his reputation; Leinster needed several standout performances to fire up the team, but they weren’t to be seen.
The match officials, on paper, were lacking experience for a semi-final of this magnitude, but referee Andrea Piardi came through it well enough, his assistants less so. He was very good in the opening 30 minutes, but when things cranked up he found himself in new pressurised territory. He also got drawn in too tight to the breakdown, and it’s very hard to make all-accurate decisions from there, but let’s not overlook that he had the “bottle” to correctly award a penalty try against the home team.
When Canan Moodie’s Stuart Hogg-like moment of madness dropped the ball over the Leinster line, assistant Gianluca Gnecchi was right on hand to give the referee the most enthusiastic of thumbs up, ‘try!’ – with friends like that … and so forth. Anyway, Piardi sorted it out and went back for a penalty; Bulls took a short one and mauled for the line, changing tack they cleverly cut back against the grain, and Johan Grobbelaar plunged over. World Cup-winning coach Jake White’s fingerprints were all over it, expect to see it copied.
There were too many Leinster players in Piardi’s ear and, while trying to ignore it, he should have demanded better behaviour. Johnny Sexton arrived shortly before the hour mark, and only he knows why, but he gave an immediate, impromptu demonstration of exactly how not to talk to, or get on with a referee. There is no need for draconian measures, but Piardi, and his coach Alain Rolland, must find a much less tolerant approach.
The laws provide many tools for referees to stop all this stuff, and these must be used, if not they’ve only themselves to blame.
Leo Cullen’s post-match comments paid little, if any, attention to the referee, and that was typically fair. Piardi did not influence the result.
Finally, let’s measure something else, Adamson versus Piardi – it was no contest, the Italian won it, and by several country miles.