Masters of the Black arts
New Zealand will face a backlash from referees if they persist in bending the rules, says Brendan Fanning
W hen you get beaten by 20 points by the best team in the world, your first point in the review is rarely the referee. And it's a stone that shouldn't always be left unturned. So we thank Stephen Ferris for being candid enough to have a whinge about how hard it is to play rugby when the opposition's response to the alarm bell is to shut down the play. Illegally.
Marius Jonker didn't have a bad game, but he was guilty of falling into a trap that has snared a few of his colleagues: letting the All Blacks away with stuff that needed to be punished. Specifically, fouling in their own 22 when the pressure came on.
If you accept that for New Zealand this tour is all about preparation for the World Cup then they are storing up trouble for themselves, for the perception is that they are cheating. It is gathering momentum. And unchecked it will result in referees getting after them every time they end up in their own 22.
Aside from the Tri Nations, New Zealand won't be playing any other Tests next year before the World Cup. So if you're a Kiwi, you'd want this perception to be altered by then. It wouldn't be good for business, come the World Cup, to have the weight of a nation on their shoulders and a bunch of referees on their heels.
So are they cheating? Well, first consider that they have no issue with pulling fast ones. If you remember the series with the Lions in 2005, the opening Test in Christchurch was defined not just by the horrendous weather but by New Zealand's cheating at the lineout where they were getting an extra man into the action. Rather than take a chance on getting caught straight off, they sought expert advice beforehand and were told that slipping an extra lifter in at the last second was unlikely to be picked up. Sound advice as it happened.
More recently we have had the growing clamour of complaints about Richie McCaw (right) and how he's so good at what he does. Some of this is fuelled by jealousy -- our default is to question the legality of the best in the business -- which is not to say there isn't any substance to the complaint.
The point is that it's not just McCaw who manages to get on the wrong side at critical moments, it's that referees are slow to punish him. Maybe it's because he's the best open side flanker in the best team in the world. Maybe it's because he's captain. Maybe it's because he has twice won the World Player of the Year award. Certainly he has been given an easy ride. Stats suggest his team have as well.
In their 13 Tests this year coming into this weekend, the All Blacks have had only two players binned (Owen Franks and Sam Whitelock). Their opponents in that period have had seven players either yellow-carded or sent off. Of course Jamie Heaslip was one of those who saw red. Interestingly, the frustration that ended his interest that night in New Plymouth was caused by McCaw who was busy defending New Zealand's line by getting on the wrong side of the ball.
The only thing that tells us conclusively is that New Zealand are very good at keeping all 15 players on the field at the same time. The stat that has been given most air however comes from the Tri Nations, and paints a picture of the ABs riding around town in the back of a squad car, taking pot shots at whoever doesn't appeal to them. Taken at face value it is alarming: that over the first five games of that tournament the South Africans were being binned for every six penalties they conceded, and the Wallabies were one better on seven. Meanwhile, the All Blacks were plundering all around them to the tune of 43 penalties before they had a man binned.
Could this be accurate? The stat originated on an Australian website (greenandgoldrugby.com) and produced graphs showing the ABs top of the heap on concession of penalties and bottom of the charts on pick-ups of yellow cards. The only problem is that it doesn't tell us what the penalties were for.
For example, you could go through the opening five minutes of a match conceding a penalty per minute for offences like being ahead of the kicker, or interfering with
an airborne jumper at a lineout, or foul play, or whatever, and still be no closer to a card when you concede your fifth penalty. Put together two in a row however for slowing ball at the breakdown and already you're on the slippery slope.
However, the IRB can tell us from their analysis that the ruck/tackle and scrum accounted for 72 per cent of the penalties awarded in the Tri Nations. And while we don't have empirical evidence for this, we reckon these are the areas that prompt most cards. So if the Kiwis topped the penalty count, and inevitably a raft of them had to come under those two headings, then one yellow card from a total (including free kicks) of 70, over six games, means something doesn't add up.
And certainly it doesn't make sense when a team is warned about its behaviour, transgresses again -- in their 22 -- and gets away without a card. For a handle on how maddening this can be then go back to Saturday and Marius Jonker. Or for another example, check out YouTube's selection on the dark deeds of the All Blacks.
Could you put together a video nasty from any team in the world? Of course, but there are a few subtleties there -- in the way for example they take out players before they even get to the ruck -- to suggest that is a policy. Currently it is working for them. By the time we get to the World Cup next year, they might be regretting the error of their ways.