The End Game. It’s as important in a tight game of rugby as it is in chess, any false move and the result will change irrevocably, too late to get things back on track.
On Friday, Harlequins and Castres played out a great match, five tries each, but the result was truly marred by the end game performance of the referee, Scotland's Mike Adamson. In the final 20 minutes the French team got absolutely no change from Adamson, who overlooked the age old philosophy - just whistle the clearly obvious stuff, which you must, otherwise play on, let the players decide the outcome. It's impossible to say other than the referee altered the result, 36-33 for the home team.
When Alex Dombrandt scored the winning try in the last move of the match, questions abounded, my phone pinging away incessantly. Here's my take on what happened.
The final barrage by 'Quins started with a forward pass from Marcus Smith, but none of the officials saw anything wrong. Nobody wants to see marginal calls on passes, but this met the 'clearly obvious' criterion, and was in contrast to a forward pass decision given against Castres a few minutes earlier. From here the home team swept into their opponents 22, where they would stay until the end.
There followed penalties, lineouts, and attacking rucks which were very stoutly defended, just until the very last one. Well, actually, it too was well defended but the referee did not see an excellent poach by the Castres centre, Adrea Cocagi, who lifted the ball, fed it back on his own side, and then fell over. Adamson was coming from the far side of the ruck, and when he got a clear view of things, all he could see was Cocagi on the ‘wrong’ side, and declared it ‘not a clear lift,’ which indeed it had been. Penalty to ‘Quins, oh dear.
Adamson then blew for “time off”, as he tried to explain the inexplicable. Next, he did not appear to whistle for “time on”, although it seemed he was about to do so as Dombrandt - after a quick tap - drove for the line. Was he on, over, or short of the line? The on-field decision was “no try”, as TMO Brian MacNiece was dialled up for advice. Of course, on-field decisions should be changed when there is compelling evidence to do so. The TMO, curiously, had no doubt whatsoever - “I have a decision for you,” which was that a try had been scored. This was latched onto quickly by the referee, even though the TV evidence was not conclusive, and the try stood.
But the bottom line is that Castres should have been allowed to play on at that final ruck, in which case they would have kicked the ball out. And won.
Paris was not for the faint hearted as Connacht were undone, once again a long skip pass over their defensive line opened the door for the winning try by Stade Francais, as the match went down to the wire. Connacht gave absolutely everything in a wondrous match, and they'll have travelled home wondering 'how on earth?' In pondering that, they'll examine a crucial ruck penalty, awarded against Sammy Arnold by Wayne Barnes with just 13 minutes left, which looked completely wrong. Stade quick-tapped and scored a vital try, plus Connacht's Conor Oliver copped a yellow - it was all a high price.
It had seemed that Connacht would have an easy end game when Stade’s Tolu Latu, already on yellow (which might itself have been red), fired an invective-laced mouthful at Barnes, who gave an impromptu lesson in exactly how referees should deal with such behaviour with yellow going to red. But Stade, without a win so far, kept their collective foot hard on the pedal, and helter-skeltered to victory, the match ebbing and flowing, non-stop drama.
Lopez the maestro
Ulster nearly succeeded in butchering their own end game against Clermont, who had seemed quite happy to be cruising to a crushing defeat. Then, enter the grandmaster, Camille Lopez. Expertly, he moved a few pieces around, changed the point of attack, and the visitors racked up 19 unanswered points in about 15 minutes. A nonplussed Ulster just about hung on, scraping home 34-31.
It was clear during the week that Munster had been stung by some of the criticism which went their way recently. But their response against Wasps ensured that there would not be another sting, and, with a good refereeing performance from Frenchman Tual Trainini, we saw some of the old spirit as they raced into a significant lead very early on, and eventually crushed the visitors 45-7.
The second half was average fare, often the case after a serious injury. Wasps' Thomas Young lay ominously motionless for a long time, and, with great care, was stretchered off just before half-time. Wasps didn't manage another score, undoubtedly thinking a lot about their injured teammate, impossible not to do so. We can only wish Young well.
Covid has had a terrible effect on the competition so far, and it has been nobody's fault. Yet, teams have been mercilessly punished when the virus has hit their camps, and the blunt instrument of awarding 28-0 victories plus bonus points has skewed the final league tables. And, don't forget, it could have excluded both Leinster and Toulouse from the next round - that would have been some lesson for EPCR in how to shoot yourself in both feet.
The press releases on these occasions tell us that these “win” awards are merely a tournament management measure to ensure all fixtures are accounted for, and that it is not a sanction. Oh come on, pull the other one - if these decisions don’t amount to sanctions, I wonder what does. Conversely, the teams who benefit are over-rewarded; it is not equitable, not by any stretch.
Nonetheless, the round of 16 in April will be awaited with huge enthusiasm - it has thrown up some absolutely intriguing contests, it’ll be gripping stuff.