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Rugby World Cup a lottery amid refereeing chaos

RUGBY WORLD CUP – The Wallabies may have the consolation of winning third place in tournament, but their progress has been far from controversial. The Rugby World Cup has been plagued by accusations of…

Bryce Lawrence is one of the Rugby World Cup referees who has won few friends in the tournament. AFP/Marty Melville

RUGBY WORLD CUP – The Wallabies may have the consolation of winning third place in tournament, but their progress has been far from controversial. The Rugby World Cup has been plagued by accusations of inconsistent refereeing. In the latest of our series, Brian Stoddart of La Trobe University examines the problems with the International Rugby Board.

As the All Blacks and France prepare for the Rugby World Cup final tomorrow, their supporters prepare for another display of physicality and skill. Away from the game, though, the sport’s governing body suffers from a rising lack of credibility that threatens rugby’s future.

At the heart of the International Rugby Board’s problem is the uneasy transition between the old, laughably labelled “amateur” game and the new, so-called “professional” one. To put it simply, the IRB acts in many ways as if the previous regime is still in operation while enjoying the massive financial benefits of the latter.

Sponsorship is worth millions of dollars, players’ wages are now in the hundreds of thousands, and yet cracks are showing on the field, most obviously over the last month of the World Cup tournament.

Referee inconsistency

In the South Africa-Australia quarter-final that Australia somehow survived, southern hemisphere referee Bryce Lawrence rewarded South Africa, the attacking side, with a penalty for wheeling the Australian scrum through 90 degrees.

Little more than an hour later in the New Zealand-Argentina match, the Kiwis were penalised for doing exactly the same thing by controversial northern hemisphere referee Nigel Owens.

That is, the same action brought diametrically opposed decisions by two referees in the same tournament directed by the IRB. Yet heading into the final, referees boss Paddy O'Brien insisted they were always striving for consistency. It has been notably absent.

There is a north/south divide over everything in rugby ranging from rules, refereeing and organisation through just about everything else. In political and commercial circles it would be described as a power struggle.

The refereeing at this RWC has been roundly criticised, by former All Black star Andrew Merhtens for one, almost totally on the grounds of inconsistency.

That was borne out in the South Africa-Australia quater final where it is widely believed that South Africa was refereed out of the game.

Then, sensationally, in the Wales-France semi-final the Welsh played with a man short after captain Sam Warburton was sent from the field for a dangerous tackle. Many observers thought the matter could have been handled much better.

North-South divide

The ruck/maul and offside rules, in particular, have been subject to enormous variation to the bewilderment of players, coaches, officials and spectators alike. There is, of course, always an element of doubt in this, and in the eye of the beholder, but this time round it has been obvious that there is a complete absence of uniformity.

That has led to crucial decisions determining the results of key games. And that has led the IRB into awkward and indefensible spots.

Nigel Owens, for example, refereed the Samoa-South Africa pool match and turned in what is technically termed “a shocker”. South Africa won after a huge struggle but the result might well have gone to Samoa.

The Samoans were infuriated by two things: first, that Owens as a Welshman should have been allowed by the IRB to referee a match in which his country had an interest. The Welsh went through to the quarter-finals partly as a result of the South African win.

Second – and this verges on conspiracy theory – the Samoans thought his refereeing so biased that he effectively engineered their tournament exit. European-based player Eliota Fuimaono Sapolu was so enraged that he “tweeted” a fusillade against Owens, to be promptly admonished by the IRB.

Sanctions

At the same time Sapolu and another Samoan were fined NZ$10,000 for appearing to promote a non-IRB sponsored mouthguard when they opened their mouths! Sapolu was called before an IRB disciplinary hearing but he claims he did not know about it. When he did later turn up he was given a six month suspended ban from playing.

An Italian player got 15 weeks for eye gouging, a few others got 5 weeks for dangerous tackles, yet Sapolu gets six months potentially for criticising the IRB.

Craig Joubert’s performance as referee for the final is going to be watched very closely and the IRB will be under pressure, because a northern hemisphere team will play a southern one.

In some matches the result has almost come from a lottery, so mystifying have been some of the decisions. If that happens in the final, then the IRB will face some serious revolts over the next few years.

Understandably, given all this many observers think the IRB has lost sight of reality.

Losing teams

Craig Joubert will be under scrutiny in the final. AFP/Gabriel Bouys

This was underlined by an extraordinary piece of silliness emanating from the IRB’s own dictatorial position and the frustration of some of its major constituents.

The CEO of the New Zealand governing body shocked more than a few when he said it was entirely possible the All-Blacks would not play in the 2015 World Cup unless the IRB loosened some of its rules.

In what was almost a unique piece of Trans-Tasman agreement these days, especially before the epic semi-final in which the All Blacks prevailed, his Australian counterpart agreed.

Both argued that the IRB’s restrictive practices were costing their respective bodies millions of dollars, because they are not allowed to carry their normal sponsors’ logos and advertising. Only IRB-sanctioned sponsors can appear at RWC.

Now over the past several years New Zealand, Australia and South Africa have arguably been the world’s leading teams and major revenue drivers for the IRB.

So what was the IRB’s response to this serious challenge? The IRB CEO, at a press conference before a deal was reached, said he did not think the two teams would be missed! It was a truly world game now, someone else would replace them.

Even those journalists used to IRB capriciousness were left agape by this gem.

What it revealed was the size of the gap between the game and its ruling board, giving further weight to a southern hemisphere view that the game is run by a northern “old boys” brigade that plays matters to its own tune while no-one else can access the sheet music.

Straight loss on points

At the start of a recent article respected veteran and balanced Sydney Morning Herald rugby writer Spiro Zavos, a Kiwi based in Australia, gave the IRB a 1/10 mark for its performance thus far in RWC 2011.

The one mark was awarded because the President gave some comments in Maori at the opening ceremony when New Zealand Prime Minister John Key did not.

By the time he rehearsed all the IRB’s shortcomings, however, at the end of the article Zavos deducted even that one point. That alone indicates the serious image and governance problem the game now has.

The team winner of RWC2011 will be clear cut after the final, but the same cannot be said of rugby’s future under its current governance and management structures.

This is the eighth part of our Rugby World Cup series. To read the other parts, follow these links:

- Part one: Rugby World Cup: All Blacks, New Zealand Maori and the politics of the pitch

- Part two: What will the Rugby World Cup be worth to New Zealand?

- Part three: Art or science? Decision making in rugby

- Part four: Rugby World Cup: Are cheats prospering?

- Part five: Rugby World Cup: The Australian situation

- Part six: Selling the Rugby World Cup

- Part seven: Rugby World Cup injuries: That’s gotta hurt

- Part eight: Rugby World Cup a lottery amid refereeing chaos

- Part nine: All Blacks' proud tradition of the haka insulted in Rugby World Cup