A good captain is often skilled in gamesmanship. On Saturday evening Clermont Auvergne added another chapter to their long history of final failure in losing to Stade Francais in the deciding game of the Top 14.
The 12-6 loss was their 11th loss in 12 French finals; 13 from 14 when one includes two European Cup final defeats in the last three years, both to Toulon.
But, in a week where World Rugby sent out a reminder to everybody in the game about the importance of enforcing existing laws, were Clermont unfairly denied a chance of snatching victory at the end?
Those who watched the final at the Stade De France were not treated to a sporting classic, despite the best efforts of the raucous crowd and, for those who chose the TV5 option over Sky Sports, the fantastically raucous commentary team.
Two minutes remained on the clock when Stade, holding a 9-6 lead, had a lineout midway into the Clermont half. After securing the throw the Parisian club would stick the ball up the jumper and rumble ominously forward. At 78:25, referee Pascal Gauzere put out an arm to signal a penalty advantage to the Parisian side. Eleven seconds later he blew the whistle. Penalty to Stade, and in an eminently kickable position.
The laws of rugby union allow for one minute to take a penalty kick at goal. While this time limit is commonly regarded as somewhat of a gentle hint, the French rugby authorities have implemented a kicking countdown clock this season (in February
was the first player to fall foul of the automated kicking adjudicator). It’s a fantastic addition to the game. So with a strict timer in place Clermont would surely still have time for one more last-gasp advance on the Stade line.
Nothing’s perfect, however.
Something often misunderstood about the 60-second rule is the point at which that countdown begins. It’s not signalled by the referee’s whistle for a penalty; it’s not even the moment at which the referee is told that the team will elect to kick at goal. Instead, it’s actually the time at which the tee (or sand, or similar) arrives for the kicker.
So, if time was ticking on and one was holding onto a slim lead, it might well be advantageous for a captain to be a little unclear about his instruction to the referee followed by the kicking tee arriving very, very slowly.
In this instance it somehow took from 78:36 until precisely 79:01 for
to make his instruction clear to the referee and for the kicking tee to be delivered to his kicker, Morne Steyn.
The South African took most of his minute, as was his right, and struck the ball at 79:51. The ball flew straight and true. Nick Abendenon, the alert Clermont fullback, caught the ball behind the posts and immediately hurled the ball towards the halfway line for the restart.
After all, earlier this year World Rugby had issued a clarification in law on this very point – if a place-kick is attempted before the full-time whistle there must be a restart, even if the clock has ticked past the 80th-minute mark before that restart can take place.
Monsieur Gauzere had other ideas. He did not permit the restart, instead blowing the whistle for full-time. A pity – with Clermont kicking off and Stade Francais having to defend a six-point lead against a team like Auvergne, who have the firepower to score from anywhere, the audience were denied what could have been an electric endgame.
Situations like this are why it’s important for World Rugby to send out little reminders about the enforcement of current laws. They issued one of these on Monday, with a series of explanatory videos highlighting players being grabbed around the neck, mid-air collisions, the maul, and the crooked feed.
The work of Toulon forward Jocelino Suta is featured in one of those videos, specifically his arm-bar across the neck of Leinster hooker Richardt Strauss in this season's Champions Cup semi-final.
It was an appalling incident, the Leinster hooker appearing to tap out as if in a wrestling ring. Suta escaped without a yellow card, a citing or even a citing commissioner’s warning. It’s good to see that the game’s governors are watching.
Clarification on the aerial challenge is also welcome. World Rugby’s note places heavy emphasis on two players making a fair, well-timed challenge for the ball. Any grabbing of another player in the air will be looked upon harshly, with the ultimate penalty being a red card if the player being manhandled in mid-air should land on their head or neck.
This last part, where the card should magically change from yellow to red depending on what way they land upon falling from the skies, remains somewhat random. The aerial lottery can be a cruel mistress.
Lastly, one of the game’s more straightforward concepts: the crooked feed. Ignored for many years, after a brief flurry of vigilance in late 2013 it’s mostly returned to being an endangered species.
Well it might depend on the tournament. In the Pro 12 2014/15 season, according to Opta’s numbers there was a crooked feed penalised approximately once every five games. In the Premiership? Every 19 games. Super Rugby? Thirty games per crooked feed awarded, on average.
Perhaps Pro12 scrumhalves are terribly badly misbehaved, or perhaps the refs are just far more strict. Either way, a reminder has now been issued to the worldwide game.
World Rugby aren’t advocating laser-guided feeds, merely that the feed must be “credible” and referees should be looking for “shoulders not being parallel”.
Like the clever Stade captain, the message ultimately filtered to those wily little scrumhalves might be one of gamesmanship: if you’re going to steal a few degrees on the feed, at least practice doing it with a bit of subtlety.