ALL BLACKS DESERVED THEIR VICTORY
There were a number of issues arising from New Zealand's 21-9 victory over Ireland at the Aviva stadium on Saturday night but before delving a little deeper it is important to state that the All Blacks deserved their victory.
Three tries to none, they took their opportunities while Ireland, despite dominating possession, territory and numbers, in the latter instance for 20-minutes of the game, could not. That’s not to denigrate the effort.
Losing three key players to injury would undermine any team, yet despite this sizeable setback the team continued to get up off the floor and fight their way back into the contest.
Ireland suffered a surfeit of misfortune on the night but Joe Schmidt and his players will reflect on a failure to execute accurately in what is professionally referred to as the 'green' or 'scoring zone.'
It would be a travesty if the lessons, albeit painful ones, of this game are not absorbed from an Irish context but they’re far from all negative. There were so many positives to be gleaned and the Irish management and players deserve the plaudits in that respect.
Ireland stretched the All Blacks time and again and with a modicum more precision would have been rewarded with a couple of tries at least. They continued to fight effectively all the way to the finish with no diminution in the integrity of their effort despite injuries to key players, as the replacements added value. Ireland have depth to their roster and a game that can threaten the best in the world.
Read the following edict from World Rugby and try not to laugh when weighed against events at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday night, albeit with a sense of gallows’ humour.
Less than a fortnight ago, World Rugby match officials selection committee chairman Anthony Buchanan said: "World Rugby's number-one priority is player welfare and the laws of the game clearly state that the necks and heads of players are sacrosanct.
“When it comes to foul play, the game is cleaner now than ever before but referees must constantly be alert to head-high hits. By taking this strong approach, we are saying to players that tackling an opponent above the shoulder line will not go unpunished.
“In addition, while striking or kicking an opponent is never acceptable, it is a more serious offence when it involves contact with the head or neck. Even ball carriers must be careful that they fend off tacklers legally and do not strike opponents with forearms or elbows.
“While this specific directive is going out to match officials at the elite international grade, we are reminding all unions and referee societies at every level of rugby to take note and strictly enforce current law in this important area.”
If there’s any substance to that statement then World Rugby must surely take action following the events at the Aviva stadium. Malice or intent is irrelevant. It is the action itself that is being judged not what motivated it.
MAKE THE PLAYERS RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR ACTIONS
New Zealand flanker Sam Cane hurtled towards Robbie Henshaw looking to use his body weight as a missile to legitimately explode between the shoulder blades of the Irish centre. In the last nanosecond before contact, Henshaw spun around to try and wriggle free of another tackler completely unaware of the impending collision.
Cane couldn’t alter his course and his shoulder (not his head as confirmed by photographic stills and bizarrely the television footage of the incident that contradicted the findings of the TMO, Welshman Jon Mason’s) smashed into the jaw of the Irish player, knocking him out.
There was no malice in what Cane was trying to do other than putting in a huge hit that would have been perfectly legal given a different contact point on the body. But should that absolve the tackler of all blame? Well it doesn’t in relation to contact in the air chasing kicks or lifting in the tackle. The onus is on the player not in possession to ensure the safety of the opponent.
So why should it be different with the tackle? If a player relinquishes control then why is it not punishable? That’s largely when injuries are inflicted.
Assume that Henshaw doesn’t spin around. Cane will catch the Irish centre between the shoulder blades inspiring a massive whiplash force to the body of a player who has no inkling of the impending collision.
What’s the difference between running 20-metres and blindsiding a player at a ruck by thrusting a shoulder into their body, prone or otherwise, and running 20-metres flat out to hit someone, who is unsighted, full force in the back? One is illegal, the other legitimate but both outcomes are potentially dangerous.
World Rugby needs to have a long, hard look, at handing player safety responsibility back to the players in the tackle as they do in other facets of the game, particularly in the light of the culture of bigger, stronger, faster and the increasing incidences of brain trauma.
The standard of officiating at the Aviva stadium wasn’t good enough to put it mildly and it detracted slightly from what was otherwise a brilliant Test match, flaws and all, between two committed teams.
It would be unrealistic and unfair to expect Jaco Peyper not to get the odd decision wrong but the sheer number on the night beggared belief from TMO Jon Mason avowing that Cane and Henshaw had been a head collision to Peyper's failure to check whether the last pass for Malakai Fekitoa's second try was forward.
It doesn’t matter whether it was or wasn’t, it was both questionable and pivotal in shaping the final throes of the contest. Ireland weren’t blameless, a high tackle on Beauden Barrett could easily have seen a yellow card sanction.
Again if World Rugby is serious about improving the sport as a spectacle, officials should be held accountable to the same standards demanded of players and coaches.
Two of the three officials were a few metres away when New Zealand wing Israel Dagg hit CJ Stander with his shoulder on the jaw without an attempt to wrap his arms in what was supposed to be a tackle, but wasn’t. It put the Irish flanker out of the match. The officials looked but did not see, a familiar refrain on the night, even in plain sight.
There were several on both sides, World Player of the Year Beauden Barrett produced several of the games definitive moments, excelling in both attack and defence, while Brodie Retallick announced his return with a towering display around the pitch; hard nosed, aggressive but with lightened by moments of exquisite handling.
Jamie Heaslip's performance was astonishingly good even by his standards, while Tadhg Furlong, Devin Toner, Josh van der Flier, captain Rory Best, Sean O'Brien and Garry Ringrose also produced top notch displays.