Wednesday 19 December 2018

Alan Quinlan: 'Referee Barnes needs to be alert to cynical All Black tactics designed to push game's laws to their limits'

 

'Wayne Barnes has his quirks but he is an excellent official who doesn't get intimidated.' Photo: Sportsfile
'Wayne Barnes has his quirks but he is an excellent official who doesn't get intimidated.' Photo: Sportsfile

Alan Quinlan

Before I put the boot into the All Blacks, figuratively on this occasion, in the interest of balance I need to first dig up some old, unpleasant incidents that certainly don't rank alongside my finest on a rugby field.

Like all Irish players pre-Chicago, the odd Lions success and Munster's 1978 brigade apart, my memories of playing against the All Blacks are clouded with disappointment. Also, in my case, delving into those episodes brings unwelcome reminders of regret. With just three caps to my name, I went on the Irish tour to New Zealand in 2002. An injury in our opening outing against a Divisional XV ruled me out of the first Test in Dunedin, where we gave the hosts a scare in a 15-6 defeat.

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On the bench for the second and final Test in Auckland, Eddie O'Sullivan finally gave me the nod to enter the fray on 67 minutes - a childhood dream realised, a chance to test myself against the mighty All Blacks.

We were trailing 28-8 at that point but I was desperate to make an impression.

I was wound up to maximum tension and time was of the essence.

So when I saw All Black second-row Norm Maxwell killing the ball in one of our rucks, I put a boot on him to let him know what I thought of his cynical play.

It was a foolish act on my part, and right in front of the referee, Tappe Henning, who, barely a minute after my introduction, sent me to the sin-bin.

When I returned from the naughty step only embers of the fiery contest remained and the final moments of a humbling 40-8 defeat were played out to little fanfare.

That disciplinary incident earned me the brilliantly-crafted nickname of 'Cage', in honour of Hollywood star Nicolas, who had recently starred in the movie 'Gone in 60 Seconds'.

Ten years ago this week I played my second Test against the All Blacks, even though I had been on tours there in 2006 and '08, an emotional Croke Park outing that turned out to be the final match of my international career.

I started on that occasion, lasting the 80 minutes against a quality New Zealand side, the spine of which would remain for their World Cup success three years later.

We were right in the game heading towards half-time, deadlocked at 3-3. The clock was in the red but New Zealand were threatening.

Dan Carter shifted the ball to Ma'a Nonu and the bruising centre stabbed a deft grubber kick into the corner.

Just as Richie McCaw was about to get his mits on the ball, to make it 8-3 and leave Carter with a challenging kick to get them into double figures, Tommy Bowe flew across the All Black flanker and knocked the ball out of play.

It was a double punishment, Tommy was shown yellow and the All Blacks were awarded a penalty try.

Nonu got over for a score of his own early in the second half - it was 14 v 14 at that stage as Tony Woodcock had been shown yellow for a punch on Rory Best - and it was curtains for us, a 22-3 loss hard to stomach for what was a very talented Irish side who just four months later would go on to win a Grand Slam.

My All Black misery wasn't quite complete, however.

I was subsequently cited over an alleged stamp on New Zealand No 8 Rodney So'oialo. I had rucked him out of it during the game. Referee Mark Lawrence had seen it at the time and didn't feel the incident even warranted a penalty.

Lawrence said as much again at the disciplinary hearing the following Monday.

I met Woodcock on my way in to the hearing, and upon seeing me he insisted I would be grand as he hadn't been handed any further punishment for clocking Best.

It didn't matter, however, as I was given a three-week ban for stamping.

I was no angel on the field. If anything, I feel that gives me a better understanding of the All Black mentality - I was often consumed by the same kind of manic competitiveness that seems to be ingrained in New Zealand internationals.

The weight of history is stitched into the seams of the All Black shirt and with that comes a desperation not to disappoint, to do whatever it takes to win.

Ireland have beaten the All Blacks, a psychological barrier has been broken - but the aura around the New Zealand machine remains.

They are charming and pleasant off the field, but on it they show no mercy.

Many northern hemisphere players, and even referees, grow up admiring these mysterious, belligerent specimens from the other side of the world, bowing to their assumed superiority when it comes to rugby union.

That is a difficult mindset to shake and sometimes the All Blacks get away with more misdemeanours than most.

To play rugby well you need to bend the laws as far as you can, that's why strong referees are so important.

Wayne Barnes has his quirks but he is an excellent official who doesn't get intimidated.

The set-piece is an area of great interest today, particularly in light of Ireland's contrasting fortunes in the scrum and lineout last week, and the All Blacks' success on England's throw seven days ago - largely thanks to the superb spoiling abilities of Brodie Retallick.

The All Blacks are the best rugby team in the world for many reasons but having the dexterity to play on the edge is one of their primary assets.

The speed with which they enter rucks, often illegally; their slowing down of the ball; and their disregard for the offside line are areas where a lot of the All Black indiscretions occur.

In the 2016 Aviva Test, Ireland were 14-3 down after 20 minutes but New Zealand had lost the influential Aaron Smith to a debatable yellow card.

Ireland had a five-metre scrum in front of the All Black posts after a period of sustained pressure.

New Zealand were vulnerable with only six men defending their line, and no scrum-half to direct proceedings.

Captain Kieran Read knew this, and as Ireland put the squeeze on the scrum, Read detached himself from his pack, ran around to the Irish side, and audaciously tried to take the ball from underneath Jamie Heaslip's feet.

It was a calculated move by the All Black No 8, he gambled that an Ireland penalty would be the likely outcome - his side were unlikely to be reduced to 13.

It was an obvious yellow-card offence but Read's gamble paid off. Jaco Peyper only awarded a penalty, Ireland kicked the three points, rather than going for the jugular, valuable minutes of Smith's sin-binning were eaten up and a great opportunity to score a try was lost.

New Zealand may have given away six penalties to Ireland's one at that point but they still held a 14-6 lead.

Justin Marshall called that passage of play "a win for the All Blacks" on commentary, and how right he was.

The All Blacks also regularly get away with ignoring laws around the set-piece.

Steve Hansen's side have scored 14 first-phase tries off scrums this year - just like when Barrett touched down in that 2016 Test at Lansdowne Road.

By the letter of the law, the first receiver must be five metres behind the scrum until it is completed but time and again we see Barrett taking a flat ball from Smith off the back of the set-piece.

This puts the defence in between a rock and a hard place - do they risk being penalised by advancing forward on one of the game's most devastating runners, or do they hold their line and give Barrett the space he needs to execute a strike play.

Barnes and his assistants need to be alert to these areas today. If they aren't, Ireland could be on the receiving end of a kicking, and there is nothing a citing commissioner can do about it.

Irish Independent

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