Friday 27 April 2018

Brendan Fanning: Referee error costs tourists the draw they deserved

New Zealand 22
Ireland 19

Dan Carter kicks the winning drop
goal as Fergus McFadden and
Jonny Sexton move to close him
down during yesterday’s Test
Match between New Zealand in
Christchurch. Photo: Phil Walter
Dan Carter kicks the winning drop goal as Fergus McFadden and Jonny Sexton move to close him down during yesterday’s Test Match between New Zealand in Christchurch. Photo: Phil Walter

BRENDAN FANNING

With just over a minute of normal time left in Christchurch yesterday, referee Nigel Owens came up with a decision that was as bad as anything he has ever produced at a set-piece.

The scrum can be a very difficult area for any referee to manage. When it remains upright it makes it easier, however. And when you have one side with a clear dominance -- as, remarkably, Ireland were enjoying at that stage -- and they execute as good a wheel as you'll see, you really don't expect the referee to blow them up for whipping it round, a manoeuvre which is both dangerous and illegal. It was neither.

The effect here was to deny Ireland a put-in, and to hand the possession over to the All Blacks. They promptly used it to get the territory from which they would win the game. Even then, it wasn't straightforward.

First they opened a fly window for Dan Carter to drop for goal, only for his effort to be deflected by Sean O'Brien and out over the dead-ball line. From the resulting scrum, Richie McCaw carved out more space, and this time replacement Piri Weepu managed to tee it up better for Carter to win the game.

And so a contest that was heading for only a second draw in its 107-year history -- the previous was in Lansdowne Road in 1973 -- ended in yet another win for the team who have never lost in this fixture.

It's worth noting that Ireland played out the last seven minutes of normal time with an extra man after Israel Dagg had been binned for a late challenge on Rob Kearney, who had just fielded Dagg's kick and returned it downfield. With the crowd howling at referee Owens, the sizeable Irish contingent in the attendance of 20,669, who put up with sub-zero temperatures to celebrate the first Test in Christchurch in nearly two years, were on their feet for altogether different reasons.

Their team had led by a point at the break only to surrender the advantage inside two minutes of the restart after a typical injection of gas by the home team. At that point, given the combination of circumstances -- a tired Ireland team, short four first-choice players and already one down in the series -- you could easily see their grip on the game slipping until they were beneath the surface by the time we arrived at the final quarter.

Instead, they scrambled back on board to be in the driving seat going around the final bend.

That's when Mr Owens mistook a wheel for a whip and in a battle which at that point was being fought over millimetres of territory, it was a huge call.

"We were just delighted he gave the penalty to us," a mightily relieved Richie McCaw said afterwards. "The view of the ref was that they had wheeled (whipped) it round and we were happy to take that."

So you can argue that the tourists failed to take advantage of their numerical superiority in those last seven minutes plus, or that they were victims.

New Zealand coach Steve Hansen was quick to make the point that in a hotly contested Test match there were a few decisions that could have gone either way, and that the referee wasn't the issue. Well, he was in so far as he got a game-shaping decision horribly wrong.

If you were pushing the former then you'd point to Jonny Sexton's only miss off the tee, coming three minutes before the referee's cock-up when he left short the long-range penalty for Dagg's late challenge.

He wouldn't have taken it on if he didn't think he could get it, so it should be viewed in that light, simply because that's exactly how the New Zealanders would look at it if the shoe was on the other foot. Moreover they would point to the fact that Ireland spilled the ball, through Mike Ross, to prompt the scrum in the first place.

That was especially unfortunate for Ross had done manfully. It was a remarkable performance from a player who was far from match-fit, not only that he should go the distance but that he should do so to such good effect.

His inclusion was the most effective of the four changes made by Kidney since the shellacking in Auckland a week ago. One other of those, Gordon D'Arcy for the injured Keith Earls, ended prematurely with the centre hobbling off with a calf injury. At the time Brian O'Driscoll was battling with an eye injury and having kept Sonny Bill Williams quiet all night it looked like Ireland might end up with no midfield.

Instead Ronan O'Gara came on for D'Arcy, with Sexton shifting to centre, and did very well, while O'Driscoll did what he does best, and battled on. His direct running caused the Kiwis real problems when it became clear the tourists wouldn't be shaken off as per the plan.

And that plan had been to demolish them at the breakdown where after last week the directive from Owens' assessors had been to tolerate fewer hands on ruck ball. In the circumstances, Ireland's capacity to overturn the All Blacks was impressive. Less so was their overall set-piece stats: three lineouts lost; two scrum free-kicks for early engagements and one lost scrum, the first of the game, due to poor timing. The All Blacks had a clean sheet on all those counts.

And yet they couldn't put away a side who got a great start with a Conor Murray try from close in, on 11 minutes, which Sexton goaled. Before the end of that first quarter they were 10 points clear when the out-half added another three points from a penalty.

As in Auckland, however, they were guilty of needless infringements, penalty concessions from an improved Dan Tuohy, and Ross, cost six points and a bizarre call against Fergus McFadden made it a one-point game at the break.

Aaron Smith gave the home side the perfect start to the new half with a try in the corner, but Sexton pulled back three, before Carter made it 19-13 only for Sexton to claw back another six points in the final quarter with the crowd growing increasingly restless.

At 19-19 the locals feared a ruined homecoming. Their heroes kept their nerve though, and despite being a man down they were good enough to force the game into a corner where Carter could close it off. No better man for that. Pity a woeful refereeing call was needed to aid and abet him.

New Zealand: I Dagg (yc 73); Z Guildford, C Smith, SB Williams, J Savea (B Smith 75); D Carter, A Smith (P Weepu 65); T Woodcock, A Hore, O Franks (B Franks 58), B Retallick (A Williams 65), S Whitelock, A Thompson, K Read (S Cane h-t), R McCaw

Ireland: R Kearney; F McFadden, B O'Driscoll (capt), G D'Arcy (R O'Gara 52), A Trimble; J Sexton, C Murray (E Reddan 65); C Healy, R Best, M Ross, D Tuohy (D O'Callaghan 59), D Ryan, K McLaughlin (P O'Mahony 63), J Heaslip, S O'Brien

Referee: N Owens (Wales)

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