'Scrumgate' and alleged bite adds to Howley fury
The 100-minute Test match looks set to rumble on for some time yet. The Six Nations disciplinarians announced yesterday that they are investigating two controversial incidents which occurred during that extraordinary passage of injury time on Saturday, with France very much on the rack.
Not only is there 'scrumgate' to sort out - the highly suspicious reintroduction of prop Rabah Slimani after two of those 20 minutes of overtime - as well as the bite mark on George North's arm, but also the verbal attack launched on Wayne Barnes by Yoann Maestri, in which the French lock questioned the English referee's integrity.
Wales are most concerned by the Slimani affair and are considering making further representations to the Six Nations committee.
"What happened shouldn't ever happen again on an international rugby field," Rob Howley, the stand-in head coach, said. "The process leading up to the change of the French tighthead, the way that occurred, we love our game too much for that. It is hugely disappointing.
"You can hear Wayne Barnes ask him [Uini Atonio, who had replaced Slimani after 55 minutes] if he's OK, and the player says, 'I've got a sore back, but I'm OK,' and then the doctor comes on and the player goes off. The referee is told he needs an HIA [head injury assessment]. It wasn't his fault - he has listened to a medic. It is about the trust between management and referee."
Where Wales believe France could be pulled up is if it can be proved that one of the coaches left the technical area to speak to the doctor as Slimani warmed up. Shaun Edwards, the Wales assistant coach, reacted with particular fury at what his team considered to be exploitation of the HIA protocol.
"One of their coaches went outside the technical area, had a word with their doctor and within a minute, he went on and took their tighthead off," Howley said. "You are not allowed outside that technical area. But someone has come outside and the doctor has gone on to the field at a break in play. That is outside the laws of the game."
Slimani's impact should not be underestimated. He is a renowned scrummager and was one of the main factors why France kept on going to the set-piece as Barnes awarded the penalties.
There were nine scrums in injury time and Barnes seemed certain to award a penalty try. But Barnes resisted, and Maestri had a controversial explanation why.
"We were refereed like a small team and it's very painful. Barnes told me that we were not dominant enough in the scrum, but the Welsh were rigging every scrum," Maestri said. "Anglo-Saxon referees always talk about fair play but the reality is that they think we're cheats. There's a complicity between Anglo-Saxons and it is in these moments that you realise it. It was unbelievable."
The Six Nations will take a very dim view and Maestri should expect, at the very least, a fine.
Brice Dulin, the French full-back, should steel himself for a ban if the citing officer can find evidence that he bit North. Barnes saw the bite mark and referred the incident to the TMO, but there was not sufficient evidence.
What hurt more was Damien Chouly diving over after 99 minutes and 55 seconds and the conversion, which condemned Wales to their third loss in the campaign and fifth place, their worst finish since the Warren Gatland era began. All they had to show for so much defensive effort were six Leigh Halfpenny penalties. Wales's lack of creativity was exposed, as it has been during the entire campaign.
Yet they could and should have beaten England, and this was another which got away. "It's tough to take, finishing fifth," Justin Tipuric, the ever-impressive flanker, said. "We've had a few close games this year that could have gone either way. The changing room was very quiet after the game."