• What Happened to That Penalty?

    Let us be clear.  The Lions deserved to draw the series.  Given the odds they faced, they showed great skill and commitment to play the world champions to a draw.  Warren Gatland, his captain and his team can depart these shores with honour and the sense of a job well done.

    Nor was there anything fortuitous about their comparative success.  They presented the All Blacks with real challenges, with their rush defence, the accurate box kicking and the physicality of their Irish loose forwards in particular.  There were some aspects of their game on the other hand that, by contrast, did not quite live up to their billing – the scrum in particular – but, on the whole, they deserve the plaudits they have received.

    It is in no sense an attempt to deny that credit to them that, reflecting in part the sense of unfinished business that both sides must feel, we must register the critical influence of the referees on the results of the two tests the All Blacks failed to win.  Those disappointed by match outcomes are always likely to complain about refereeing decisions – but there can be little doubt that the All Blacks, in the second and third tests, were done no favours by the inconsistent (at best) rulings of the two French referees.

    A couple of instances will make the point.  It is no exaggeration to say that the critical moment in the series was the deserved red card for Sonny Bill Williams in the second test for an unintentional shoulder charge to the head. It meant that the ABs played the greater part of that match a man down, and he was then suspended for the following match so that the ABs were denied his particular skills and experience in the third test.

    Contrast that with the yellow card given to Mako Vunipola in the second test for what was undoubtedly an intentional shoulder charge to the head of a player – Beauden Barrett – who was sitting on the ground.  Vunipola received the lesser penalty of the yellow card and was able to play in the third test.  Referee Garces was hardly a model of consistency.

    An even more striking instance of refereeing frailty and inconsistency can be seen when we compare the closing moments of the second and third tests and the impact of referee’s decisions on their outcomes.

    Owen Farrell kicked the winning penalty in the second test when a penalty was awarded against Charlie Faumuina for tackling Kyle Sinckler in the air in front of the ABs’ posts.  The Faumuina tackle was perfectly lawful – even run-of-the-mill – in itself.  What converted it, according to the referee, into an illegal action was that, as Faumuina launched himself to tackle a player about to receive the ball, that player happened to jump a few inches off the ground as the ball from Conor Murray reached him.

    The episode was completely innocuous and it was the most technical of offences, but the referee had no hesitation in awarding what was likely to prove, and was, a match-winning penalty to the Lions.  Let us now switch focus to the last couple of minutes of the third test.

    In this case, in an incident all too familiar to anyone with any knowledge of rugby, a Lions forward failed to take the ball cleanly when the ABs kicked off, the ball bounced forward, and it was instinctively but no doubt inadvertently handled by the replacement Lions hooker, Ken Owens, who was standing in an offside position.

    He immediately realised what he had done and threw up his hands in an apparent attempt at disclaimer.  The referee immediately awarded a penalty in a kickable position.  Anton Lienert Brown, who had snapped up the ball when Owens threw it away and was heading for the try line, stopped when he heard the whistle and saw the referee’s uplifted arm.

    The referee almost immediately recognised the possibly match-deciding significance of what he had done.  He then asked to look at video footage of the incident, perhaps expecting or even hoping that he would see something that might get him off a potentially painful hook.

    The video footage showed, as conformed by the video referee, that Kieran Read had legitimately challenged for the ball and that the ball had indeed gone forward – albeit marginally – from the failed catch.  There was therefore no reason to change his original, and clearly signalled, decision.  He nevertheless did so.

    The opportunity for Beauden Barrett to kick the goal,(and who knows whether he would have done so) and thereby win the test and the series was therefore denied.  Why?  We may never have a satisfactory explanation.  The weighty implications of the decision, and the point reached in the match and the series, should not have been a factor, just as they seem not to have been for referee Garces in the second test.

    It is at the very least unsatisfactory that a great series should turn on a referee apparently chickening out in this way.  We take nothing away from the Lions, but we should expect better, and the match deserved better, than this from an international referee.

    Bryan Gould

    9 July 2017