Wednesday 16 October 2019

Neil Francis: 'Refs letting All Blacks cheat with impunity makes them even more difficult to overcome'

New Zealand will do absolutely anything to avoid conceding. Where are Ireland with this concept?

Sonny Bill Williams shrugs off a Canadian tackle at Oita Stadium. Photo: Getty Images
Sonny Bill Williams shrugs off a Canadian tackle at Oita Stadium. Photo: Getty Images
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The All Blacks played Canada at Oita Stadium on the island of Kyushu last Wednesday. They gave a performance of practiced functionality on their way to a 63-0 victory. They didn't hold back any of their 'special moves' because, well, they don't have any.

They play what is in front of them and then superior instinct takes over and with relentless pressure they eventually overcome you.

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Keith Earls. Photo: Sportsfile
Keith Earls. Photo: Sportsfile

It was another night of oppressive heat and humidity and even the remorseless Kiwis made mistakes, including two by the Barrett Brothers, Jordie and Beauden, both dropping the ball with a clear run-in to the try line. In truth 63-0 translates to about 100-0 given the conditions. It has, to an extent, saved the Tier 2 nations from some thrashings.

The game was over after 20 minutes as the All Blacks led 21-0. Somebody should sound the hooter and everyone can go and have a few extra-cold beers.

The All Blacks have picked a new, fresh crop of Polynesian front row forwards with younger legs and a bit more Duracell in them than the ageing Owen Franks, who was left at home. We are not quite sure how good these props are. Maybe they will be tested by Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong in the next fortnight or so.

In a typically good attacking position near the Canadian 22, Moli Atunaisa, the All Black loosehead, threw a pass in the general direction of Sonny Bill Williams. The ball with no name on it went loose and Canada's scrumhalf Gordon McRorie latched onto it and scampered downfield. A tackle went in and the ball was offloaded to number 8 Tyler Ardron. Canada know how to play the offload game because they have been watching Ireland in this year's World Cup. Ah sure begorrah and bejaysus we've been doing it for fun in Japan.

Anyway, Ardron is tackled and flips it out to outhalf Peter Nelson who has a bit of gas and is in daylight with only Beauden Barrett to beat. Barrett has to turn on the soles of his feet as Nelson changes direction twice. The crowd gorge themselves on the thrill of the chase as the red-headed Nelson heads for the line.

Whatever about letting Canada score, they couldn't let a 'Ginger' score! That did not come to pass. Nelson stepped to his left and cut right and accelerated, which meant Barrett had to turn and catch Nelson with a 10-metre deficit. Barrett showed impressive acceleration and he nailed the Canadian on the five-metre line with a decisive tackle. The Canadian outhalf's momentum and the evening dew meant that tackle scene slid another four metres to end up a metre from the All Blacks' try line.

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What happened next? I might refer you to line one of chapter one of the All Blacks Rugby Code: Under no f***king circumstances do you concede a try to anyone - not even the tooth fairy. If the choice is to either prevent the All Black try line being breached or preventing your sweet, wonderful 90-year-old grandmother being torn to pieces by a pack of wild dogs, I feel the term 'our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of dear Ellie at this time' would be trotted out.

When he made the tackle, Barrett rolled over onto his side of the tackle area - it was the only law he observed in the next 15 seconds. He did not get back onto his feet, he did not detach from the tackled player, he flopped on Nelson, never made any attempt to roll away and kept his hands on the ball for 15 seconds. Five penalties rolled into one.

He didn't budge even when the cavalry arrived and tried to drive him off the ball carrier. Romain Poite was one metre away. This man picks up every infraction of the rule book, and a few others that he thinks up himself, when officiating teams filled with lesser mortals, but a metre away from play and he is oblivious to an act of larceny which leaves Boris Johnson's charade in the shade.

It takes 15 seconds for the Canadians to get Barrett off the ball and clear out the ruck. The All Black line was back in a millisecond because even in a turkey shoot they act and play as if their very lives depend on them being there to protect their line and so they were waiting for the Canadians with meat cleavers and baseball bats.

The Canadians went 12 phases and got driven back 10 metres. In that time the All Blacks gave away 20 penalties, of which only one was awarded. This was for a head-first no-arms tackle by Kieran Read on one of the hapless Canadian runners. Don't worry Kieran, you are the captain of the All Blacks, you have diplomatic immunity.

In the middle of this phase of play there was a comic moment involving Sonny Bill Williams. The All Black centre jumped offside at the ruck but put his hands in the air. This very act automatically absolves you from wrongdoing. The referee cannot penalise you if you are an All Black who jumps offside but puts his hands up. It is in the rule book - the offside law article 5 paragraph 3. I'm certain of it. Go and check it out yourself, as Boris would say.

What is the upshot of this little vignette? First off Barrett should have got a yellow, Read arguably a red and Williams a yellow and Poite should have awarded Canada a penalty try.

New Zealand are difficult enough to beat at the best of times but because they cheat with impunity and such breathtaking cynicism and referees let them do it, they are even more difficult to overcome.

If there is a rugby Heaven and Hell, Richie McCaw, who lifted two World Cups, will probably be sitting at the right hand of God whereas in the real world he should be down in the bowels of Hell with demons sticking hot pokers up his arse and Martin Johnson for company.

They cheat, they cheat, and they cheat! And they are let away with it time after time!

At 21-0, with the first quarter gone, Canada were in the foothills of a whipping. They were never going to get within 60-plus points of winning this game. The kernel of the issue here tells you so much about the likely destination of the World Cup.

I have to refer back to Ireland's grievous but warranted loss to Japan to graphically illustrate the point - the point being the difference between the contenders and the pretenders.

When Kenki Fukuoka intercepted Jordan Larmour's pass in the last minute and set off for the line it was a telling moment. Many people have commented on the fact that Larmour was closer initially to the Japanese replacement wing and yet it was Keith Earls (pictured) who got back for a truly brilliant tackle. Yes Joe Schmidt had told us that Earls' pace markers in training were off the planet and in truth he looks like Ireland's sharpest and most dangerous player. That could be down to the fact that he has been rehabilitating and hasn't been flogged to death like the rest. Earls also had a better line, I feel, and the chaser always has a better chance than someone who is carrying the ball. The other angle is that Earls is 32 and this will undoubtedly be his last World Cup.

When you play in a Test match, everyone on the pitch is usually aware of the scoreboard and all of the permutations. Earls, with all of his experience, would have known the consequences of a 26-12 loss to Japan. No bonus point. The whole island knows how critical it may be and so he embarked on a thrilling pursuit and put in one of the best tackles I have seen in the circumstances - perfect execution. It had to be. It had to be because this was Earls' last World Cup and quite possibly could have been the end of Ireland's challenge. He had to make that tackle. Do or die!

I am not sure how legal Earls and Larmour were when they went for the pill - but this was a Bill Shankly moment and Ireland just about got away with it.

Do or die! Grim determination to keep yourself alive.

The All Blacks?

In a match of little consequence to them, which they were going to win heavily against amateur opposition, they were prepared to do anything, absolutely anything, to ensure their line was not crossed. That my friends is the difference between champions and pretenders.

At the moment of asking what exactly are you prepared to do? Where are Ireland with this concept?

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