Gerry Thornley: Lions, not All Blacks, were denied final shot at glory
Officials missed the fact that Kieran Read was three yards in front of the ball at restart
Referee Romain Poite explains to All Blacks captain Kieran Read his decision not to award a penalty in the closing stages of the third Test against the Lions at Eden park in Auckland. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
There are 77 minutes, 54 seconds on the clock and, as the dogs in the street now know, it’s 15-all. Freeze-frame Beauden Barrett’s restart. Kieran Read is three yards in front of the ball. It should have been a scrum back on halfway to the Lions. What followed is all irrelevant. Some mountain of irrelevance though.
Romain Poite had asked his TMO George Ayoub if he was happy that no one was in front of the ball for the restart, and Ayoub answered in the affirmative. If only he’d checked. Who knows, the Lions might have gone through the phases and worked a drop goal opportunity for Owen Farrell which the All Blacks, by contrast, then eschewed from their ensuing scrum.
For those of us who backed the Lions at 4-1, we should have our money back at least!
Ultimately, in the immediate fallout from this dramatic if slightly anti-climactic finale to an epic third Test of an epic series, perhaps one man was happy. Somewhere sitting in front of a television, Wayne Barnes must have afforded himself a wry smile. After almost six years of bearing the brunt of New Zealand’s wrath for the All Blacks’ World Cup quarter-final defeat to France in Cardiff in 2011, Poite has assuredly now assumed that mantle.
As expected, the media bombardment began immediately. “Blown” screamed the Herald on Sunday’s back page. ‘Ref’s late u-turn leaves series undecided’. Inside, another headline read: ‘Penalty that wasn’t now a defining moment’.
At his press conference on Sunday, Steve Hansen bracketed Poite and Jerome Garces with Nigel Owens as the three best referees in the world, and laid most of the blame at the door of World Rugby. “When we have things with multiple interpretations there will always be human error.”
However, he was also more critical of Poite’s change of heart in that fateful 79th minute. While advanced technology should help, Hansen said: “The more time we have to think about something we over-think it. I think in this case that is what happened. Romain’s instinct was it was a penalty. Straight away you see the young fella who caught the ball, he knew: ‘Shit, I shouldn’t be catching this’. So he chucked it away.”
Hansen drew comparisons with the erroneous penalty Craig Joubert awarded against Scotland in similar circumstances in their World Cup quarter-final defeat against Australia, and added that if play had continued Anton Lienert-Brown would have scored a try under the posts. Hmmm.
“But he [Poite] got caught up in over-thinking it. I bet he is not feeling good about that. He is a good man, Romain. He hasn’t done it deliberately. It is no different to when Craig made his mistake in the World Cup. You just have to accept it, as much as it can be frustrating and annoying, it is part of sport. In five years time do you think anyone will remember when they think about this series it was drawn on something like that? No, they will just say it was a drawn series and we will have all moved on.”
Strictly speaking, in changing his view that Ken Owens had played the ball deliberately to instead playing it accidentally, Poite was probably wrong. Owens, fleetingly, instinctively plays the ball, before pulling his hands away.
So Hansen has a point, but then so too did Warren Gatland when saying it could have been a penalty against Kieran Read for his challenge in the air with Liam Williams. It was that which Sam Warburton initially asked Poite to check.
Ayoub agreed with Poite that there was nothing wrong with Read’s challenge, and that Owens was in an offside position from what he called “the knock-on”. But on reviewing the incident, Poite informed both captains: “We have a deal.”
He added: “He [Owens] didn’t play deliberately the ball. It was an accidental offside. We go for a scrum for Black.”
“Romain, Romain,” Read implores him. “In the rules . . . he is offside.”
“No, we go for a scrum,” insists Poite.
Ironically, had the shoe been on the other foot, the All Blacks and New Zealand media would no doubt have been complaining just as forcefully about being wronged.
As had been the case throughout each of the Tests, including this one, there had been decisions which could have gone either way. Even from that fateful restart, Owens does indeed retreat from in front of the ball, but it’s not even certain that the ball did go forward. And Read does barge into Williams (who had his back turned too much) without playing the ball.
In the final analysis, while the last play should by rights have been a Lions scrum on half-way, the Lions can perhaps be indebted to have two strong-willed and independent French referees. Garces had been absolutely correct in red-carding Sonny Bill Williams in the second test, despite receiving no backing from Ayoub or his assistant Jaco Peyper.
You think back to Joubert’s performance in that 2011 World Cup final, when at the very, very least Jerome Kaino should have been penalised for being on the wrong side of a ruck and thus afforded the French a penalty to win the match, and you’d have to think had it not been for French referees the Lions might well have lost this series.
But also think back to where they were in the first week and a half of this tour, and especially after losing the first Test 30-15, at which point they were 18-1 to win the series and probably had no backers. As the days, months and years pass, this will be seen as a monumental achievement.
They deserved a draw on the last night and in the series overall.