Comment - The defeat in Chicago was a stain on New Zealand's soul and they were right to sock it to Ireland
It is time to stop belly-aching about the All Blacks. They were terrific in Dublin: feisty, fierce, proud and unrelenting. Champion stuff. We have all genuflected before their free-flowing, intricate, intelligent rugby, acclaimed the sense of possibility that imbues their every action. They have skills beyond the norm. They are athletic and dextrous.
But above all they are warriors. The haka is no mere song and dance. It is what New Zealanders are about. They will fight you to the last on a rugby field. That is why they rule the world. That is why they have set records for this and for that. And that is why there were high, swinging arms at the Aviva Stadium. Inexcusable? No. Sanctionable? Yes.
Their attitude was a huge mark of respect to Ireland. The All Blacks had been turned over by Ireland in Chicago because Joe Schmidt’s side had been hungrier, more savvy, more committed, more united. All of these elements New Zealanders usually take as non-negotiable. Yet they lacked that inner essence at Soldier Field. It was a stain on their soul.
This was payback, not against Ireland but against themselves. They let themselves down in Chicago. They were not going to traduce a century or more of tradition again.
We will come to the transgressions. But, first a question and an admission.
Do we not like a bit of edge and bite (not literal) and wallop? I do. Are we to see rugby sanitised completely? If you are drawn to the sport for its thunder and ferocity, then it would be wholly wrong to jump to facile conclusions when a team takes that approach to the last possible degree. By comparison with how things used to be, in the supposed dark days (although many of us remember them with a degree of affection), punch-ups were the norm as a release of all that energy, an expression of the physicality that lies at the heart of the sport.
So hold back on the All Black bashing. As to the notion that there is one law for New Zealand, and quite another for everyone else, well, appealing as that conspiracy theory might be, it is also hokum. New Zealand deserve to be upbraided when there is a case to answer.
There were, of course, several incidents that did merit scrutiny. And these have, by and large, been dealt with through the citing process, with All Black flanker Sam Cane and centre Malakai Fekitoa, to face the disciplinary beaks for high tackles. Their respective incidents had a significant impact on the game, with Cane’s charge removing Ireland centre Robbie Henshaw from the fray after just 11 minutes while Fekitoa was to return from a sin-binning (whereas he might have been red carded) to score the match-shaping second try.
Cane did not set out to put Henshaw off the field. That was an unintended consequence. If he had punched him deliberately, then you might argue a different line.
The nub of the debate cannot, and should not, be New Zealand’s attitude.
They were wholly within their right to sock it to Ireland, as Ireland did to them. No-holds-barred rugby makes for a gripping spectacle.
Nor should we expect coaches to hang their men out to dry by criticising them for the various incidents. Daft petulance that results in a yellow card? Or downright thuggery? Again, yes. And even give Beauden Barrett a little slap-down for almost ruining the scoring of his fine try, and getting his block knocked off by Johnny Sexton (and, yes, that should probably have been yellow), by delaying his touchdown. Hansen wants his men fired up for the challenge, just as Schmidt did.
The case to answer concerns officiating. It was a poor show by South African ref Jaco Peyper and his colleagues on the field and particularly up in the television match official box. As intimated, my own view would be to cut players some slack in terms of what is acceptable aggression. World Rugby sees it differently. Very differently. And, given the alarming rise in bouts of concussion, in this case they are right to do so. They issued a directive prior to this autumn series that made it very clear that there would be a clampdown on anything even approaching a head-high tackle. There was to be a policy of zero tolerance.
“Player welfare is our number-one priority… and the laws of the game clearly state that the necks and heads of players are sacrosanct. Referees must be constantly alert to head-high tackles. We are saying that tackling a player above the shoulder will not go unpunished.”
Peyper and his team manifestly failed to deliver to this remit. It was an abrogation of responsibility on their part. Schmidt refused to engage in debate on the issue after the match, placing his faith in the behind-closed-doors procedure for officials. Peyper himself, of course, was not available for comment. Just as Craig Joubert was kept away from media questioning in the wake of that contentious World Cup quarter-final between Scotland and Australia last year. And that is wrong.
I forcibly argued the point at a World Rugby conference last Tuesday. Nigel Owens and former high-ranking ref Alain Rolland were also on the panel. Rolland felt that a ref would be too exposed if he were allowed to be quizzed. Where is the obligation to the public in all this? They have handed over their money, they have the right to expect illumination and explanation. No one is out to pillory a ref. But silence makes things worse.
Let’s see how the citing process plays out. It is there for a reason, for instances such as this. That is the way to go. Not the kangaroo court. The All Blacks are not blameless, but nor are they thugs.