GUBU – grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre, unprecedented. Those words, first coined by former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, came to mind as Australia’s Lachlan Lonergan dived over for the winning try in Cardiff. Wales had surrendered a massive 21 point lead, 34-13, and all in less than 30 minutes.
It’s impossible to recall the home of Welsh rugby ever seeing anything like last Saturday. Having played very well for an hour it was an inexplicable, implosive capitulation and it’s hard to see coach Wayne Pivac holding on to his job.
Australia fielded a decimated team, shorn of many first choices. Seven wounded players had already flown home, with three suffering from brain injuries, including Nic White who, bafflingly, had been put back on the pitch against Ireland. Other key players, such as Nick Skelton and Bernard Foley, were unavailable as the match was outside the official window for these Tests. The net result was that Wales lost to a team that was just cobbled together by coach Dave Rennie, pretty much a second string.
Side entry and sealing-off the ball were the orders of the day, with both teams being equally guilty. Occasionally, these were penalised but far too many went unpunished. Before the Six Nations, World Rugby will need to clarify what’s what, particularly around teams in possession. They seem to have an open license to protect this possession by putting players beyond the ball at the breakdown, and also allowing them to place their hands on the ground – on all-fours they prevent any contest.
And it’s not equitable either, if defensive players try the same thing, it’s an instant penalty, so please tell us what the story is here.
The advantage law was something of a puzzle, and one ruling by referee Matthew Carley deserves particular analysis. Australia mis-threw into a lineout and the ball went over the top to Wales’ Ken Owens. He charged into the opposition, his choice of several options, making about eight metres before possession was lost, or so we thought. But no, the ball was handed straight back to Wales by way of a scrum, the eagle-eyed officials spotting that the misthrow had not been straight. Oh, spare us: Australia had thrown the ball to Wales, so that should have been that, just play on. What happened was a daft, unnecessary interruption by the referee.
Twickenham saw South Africa teaching England a lesson and, at the same time, teaching us all just how damned difficult it will be to beat this immense and powerful team come World Cup time – don’t forget they are in Ireland’s pool. England had no answer to the massive Springbok pack, nor to their creativity wide-out. The result was never in doubt, even when Thomas du Toit added to South Africa’s growing red card collection.
Despite the poor performance Eddie Jones sees England as being on track, but the Twickenham booing told us that he has lost his audience, maybe the dressingroom too.
Jones, however, will legitimately question the try by Eben Etzebeth. Firstly, England’s Maro Itoje, seemingly in a perfect poaching position, was told by referee Angus Gardner not to play the ball. Then Faf de Klerk appeared to knock the ball on before Etzebeth, who looked clearly on the ground as he took possession, went on to score. TMO Ben Whitehouse remained strangely silent.
There are great efforts afoot to cut down the time it takes to complete a scrum, an area dominated again by South Africa. Gardner needed to move things along at the weekend and not continuously discuss the problems of collapsing. Referees normally do all of this prior to the match and there’s no requirement to keep repeating it. The referee over-played communication and it didn’t pay dividends. Time for a rethink.
There’s a huge amount of rugby to come before the international teams pitch their tents again for the Six Nations. Ireland, with England and France at home, will be favourites. Andy Farrell will be hoping against hope that injuries will be avoided. We particularly need the front row, scrumhalf and outhalf to come through unscathed. Farrell will also be hoping to get the best referees, and Ireland deserve them.
It’s important too that the top officials get a couple of matches each, and that there won’t be people rolled out who we know are not good enough. There are fifteen matches, but definitely not fifteen referees up to the job.
The appointments will also provide a strong clue as to who will get a ticket for France. The referee team for the World Cup will provide the selectors with few headaches, there is not an enormous amount of high-level talent available. But Ireland, having missed out in 2019, will surely have Andy Brace win a deserved seat on the plane.
Whoever is chosen for the Six Nations and then the World Cup, remember that it will not be an easy task for them, nor for the highly respected referee manager, Joël Jutge, who will also have the unenviable job of liaising with team coaches on performance issues. Not easy at all.