Funny how the USA were the first team to receive a red card. How do lesser teams get their rewards?
For instance, is it a reward for Fiji that Australian Reece Hodge is suspended for three weeks following his citing? Peceli Yato, Fiji's star player was thundering towards the try line when smashed high by Hodge. No try, no penalty, no card, no reward but a HIA and Yato doesn't come back.
Reward? Whether they’d won or not is irrelevant. The irony for Fiji is they want Australia to be at their strongest for their remaining pool games.
What a phenomenal opening weekend we've had but I've been consumed by the concept of rewards. Take Japanese secondrow James Moore and his left elbow/shoulder as it plunged into Russian scrumhalf Vasily Dorofeev's head.
First game of RWC and first high hit. In co-commentary my mind often wanders with the freedom to get an overall flavour of the game which means I’m not always following the ball. So when Dorofeev offloaded my eyes stayed on him as he flew backwards.
My reaction was immediate, drawing attention to what on first viewing was a high elbow into the head and worthy of the TMO et al to dictate the colour of card. None followed. The minnows loose; oh how Russia could’ve enjoyed a 14 man opposition.
There are two reasons why this is important; safety and match outcomes. Tackle technique often breaks down when the defender is most vulnerable due to the mounting offensive pressure. The defensive unit creeps offside or the quickly transitioning team expose an individual defender to a brutally tough tackle encounter. Here is where the high hit is landed.
Fiji were ahead 11-7 when Yato departed; Hodge didn't and went on to score 10 points. Yato's running skill forced a crap tackle from Hodge. This must be punished in real time. Invariably the weaker side concedes these errors when under immense pressure such as for England's George Ford try yesterday against the USA's whose defence was all over the place.
English pressure leading to scores; perfect. But what if the weaker side (Russia and Fiji) has the stronger side under pressure? Inevitably the stronger side will limit the damage by utilising the defensive creep, scrum sneak, breakdown slink and lineout slither and escape sanction.
In the first 20 minutes South Africa had New Zealand in enormous trouble where they, as expected, maximised the impact of their big beef players with two talking points.
The first, their paltry three-point return for their monster efforts. Akin to Scotland, they lacked the top end footballing skill set to convert pressure into points but another reason will prove enormously influential when we play them on October 20th.
Any field sport is about building and creating pressure on the opposition with their mistakes affording the attacking team greater opportunity to score. Referees need to punish the opposition should the the dominant team’s pressure not realise points. What, the referee should gift scores? No; but he should change the behaviour of the players whose behaviour needs to be changed but especially where that behaviour costs teams points (or safety).
In 2012 I wrote in detail of Ireland's experience when, having their first victory in sight at 19-all in Christchurch; the All Blacks scrum crumbled under the immense pressure of Cian Healy, Rory Best and Mike Ross.
The referee that day neglected to value of this pressure and didn’t punish the All Blacks’ buckling scrum. The All Blacks escaped through a Dan Carter drop goal.
Likewise, last Saturday South Africa had All Black prop Joe Moody et al under huge pressure but failed to gain reward. Take the penalty advantage South Africa earned resulting in a five metre scrum being awarded. However referee Jerome Garces pulled them back for the penalty, which Handre Pollard subsequently missed. The advantage was a five metre scrum put in for South Africa with a try and possible yellow card the outcome.
Watch Moody’s variety of binding, left elbow on the deck or binding on the South African’s shorts; all unpunished. The scrum is South Africa’s centre of gravity; the referee and New Zealand neutralised it.
All sides do it but throughout that period the All Blacks crept offside when under huge pressure deep inside their own 22. That offending needs to be punished as without it South Africa struggled to score.
The inevitable happened as the All Blacks, through their outrageous skill set, scored two tries.
Ireland will now coast along to the quarter-finals having earned that right but need their rewards when facing South Africa – and more so against the All Blacks – both of whom will choose but once in the entire match to shut down an advantageous Irish attack.
Ireland’s game emphasises breakdown pressure as a force multiplier and South Africa know this and, with tight margins, once or twice they will err across the defensive edge where referee must punish any creeping, cheating defensive play or worse still the high head hit.
Down the years how often have we seen the All Blacks under serious pressure shutting it all down. This behaviour implemented just once and allowed to go unpunished can lead to the French Argentine debacle where Louis Picamoles managed to steal forward; a match/life changing moment of high hits, or the outrageous side entry by Australia's Michael Hooper against Fiji.
This is not a ‘green eyed’ piece but a reflection on how challenging it is for lesser teams to reap rewards against stronger sides.
For the remainder of Pool A Ireland are that stronger side where Japan, Russia and Samoa should receive justly earned rewards for Ireland’s fatigue under pressure. Against South Africa, we may need the same!