Refs need to see NZ as just another team
Bismarck du Plessis’ red card in Auckland may have a much bigger impact on the game of rugby than just raising the temperatures of Springbok rugby fans.
For years now the All Blacks have built a history of success, based on their impressive skills, unbelievable organisational ability, consistency, and the added bonus of having referees lean their way in crucial contests.
It certainly was like that on the pitch on Saturday in Auckland, and it certainly was like that in 2011 when Craig Joubert leaned firmly in their favour in the Rugby World Cup final.
They were the better side in Wellington on the day, but they also got the rub from referee Jaco Peyper with decisions that made it easier for them to dominate Australia.
There are countless examples of this. Remember Alain Rolland in 2011 telling Richie McCaw three times that “this is your final warning” – and then penalising McCaw again for the same infringement at the breakdown but somehow forgetting his card.
And how many times can Ma’a Nonu get away with a coathanger tackle that is both illegal and immoral, and then still have Steve Hansen defend him afterwards as if it was ok?
We won’t forget Brad Thorne’s dumping of John Smit – an incident which wasn’t even cited either.
When it comes to physicality, they’re no different from the rest of the world, but their holier-than-thou attitude at times borders on arrogance, and while all teams tend to cross the line, there is certainly an attitude that butter couldn’t melt in their own mouths in that part of the world.
There is one thing that you learn by touring New Zealand. They expect to win. It comes down to their mindset, their inner being and the fact they have built up the best record of success that world rugby has seen.
It is a remarkable run, and one that makes it so much harder for teams to win in the Land of the Long White Cloud.
For that they deserve to be applauded. While Springbok teams have shot themselves in the foot more times than not, the All Blacks simply move on.
Their central contracting system is geared towards the national team, players get sabbaticals when they are tired and they are always best conditioned when the Castle Lager Rugby Championship rolls around.
They have a habit of winning and use every bit of intimidation to influence the opposition.
Whether it is leaving a broken scrum machine that nearly injured Bok players in Auckland last week, or the way they intimidate referees, there is a concerted effort across the board to ensure they win every inch, both on or off the field.
South Africa could learn from this mentality. Provincialism has eroded support for the Boks over the years and one just has to look at the comments column of any rugby website to see that we’re definitely not a nation united behind the Boks.
The IRB is partly to blame for this of course.
The last two heads of referees have been New Zealanders, and they have ensured that their philosophy of reffing the game has been instituted across the world.
Paddy O’Brien, the former head of referees even had to apologise to New Zealand for Stuart Dickinson’s performance in 2009 when the All Blacks played against Italy.
This is the same O’Brien who defended Bryce Lawrence, who he owns race-horses with, for his 2011 performance in Wellington when the Boks were bundled out of the World Cup in shocking fashion.
Former England flyhalf and SkySports commentator Stuart Barnes hits the nail on the head in a column he penned this week about how New Zealand get all the breaks.
“The breaks going the way of New Zealand are becoming too familiar a pattern in New Zealand. They are the world's leading team and the best benefit from sympathetic officiating in all sports but this pattern is disturbing,” Barnes wrote.
“Every small decision seems to be interpreted New Zealand's way. Even when the All Blacks suffered two indisputable yellow cards in the last 10 minutes when the game was won the referee took their side. Nonu went for the aforementioned late charge, but Conrad Smith escaped a cynical hand in the ruck metres from the line. “
New Zealand Herald writer Gregor Paul – who was almost alone in agreeing with Steve Hansen’s assertion that the second yellow for Du Plessis should have been a red – believes it’s all a conspiracy against the world’s best side.
“That's kind of what the All Blacks are facing at the moment: every time they win, there are allegations that they cheat and get away with it or the ref copped out and went soft on them,” Paul wrote in his column in the New Zealand Herald.
“The facts are a little different. Since winning the World Cup, the All Blacks have picked up eight yellow cards while their opponents have collectively gathered nine and one red.”
However a stat that is relevant is that the All Blacks have received 46 cards in 166 tests, while the Boks have got 77 in 164 games this millennium.
Does anyone really believe the Boks are twice as bad as the All Blacks when it comes to discipline?
The IRB have a lot to cop here, from their insistence that teams can’t approach the haka, and have to stay 20 metres back from the opposing team, to the manner they fete New Zealand at every single turn.
It is even more apparent at Sevens level, where coaches regularly talk about how there is one set of rules for New Zealand, and another for the rest.
And in fifteens, those more flippant than me refer to the unwritten code that “you may not touch Richie McCaw or Dan Carter” (apparently rule 10.0.9.1.a, written in hobbit ink).
But far from blaming everything on the Kiwis, it is also fair to point out they have been good in manipulating play, influencing referees and have simply taken every chance they were given.
As we all know, the team that is on top on the scoreboard usually gets the breaks and they have made good use of these.
Poite’s performance got the IRB to issue a statement for the first time in history on a refereeing performance.
This in itself is significant, and hints towards a shift in the world organisation now that a New Zealander is not in charge anymore.
Saturday’s travesty of justice isn’t the first in the long history between these two sides and there are books littered with referee complaints over the last 100 years.
But it was one where the role of the whistleblower in being intimidated came to the fore rather starkly.
The IRB needs to look at itself and the way it handles the world champions. Ensuring dominance of one side isn’t in the long-term interest of the game. Falling over backwards to grace the black jersey at every turn will only breed resentment.
World rugby needs a rivalry again that will draw crowds and give parity to the game. World rugby needs to see the All Blacks judged on their merits whether they are still leaps and bounds ahead of the rest.
New Zealand also need to look at themselves and realise they do get the rub of the green. To constantly claim innocence is as ridiculous as Steve Hansen trying to deflect questions about Nonu’s tackling style.
Springbok rugby needs to be smarter, tougher and take the game more to the All Blacks.
Bok players need to take their responsibility in reigniting the rugby rivalry that we all want, a rivalry that in 1981 almost tore New Zealand apart. The Boks need to be much better, and they know it.
The referees for their part play an important role. Refereeing is in big trouble when there is not one Sanzar referee who can officiate such a game, and the differences between South and North are still so apparent.
For every Poite, there are 1000 referees just doing their best and they deserve to be applauded, not condemned.
But they also need to take responsibility and ensure that they are not influenced by the crowd, the aura and the invincibility tag of the players.
It is a tough job at the top, but as in any high-profile sport, they need to take their side of responsibility as well.
The All Blacks are favoured – no doubt about that. But they are favoured because for the other 70% of the time they do things so well. Referees simply start to believe they can do no wrong.
Let’s hope this is the line in the sand that is drawn that levels the playing fields.
Let’s hope teams can face the haka and move forward to the halfway line once again. Let’s hope a final warning for an All Black is a final warning and professional fouls are penalised as they should be.
Otherwise the All Blacks will continue to protest innocence in every manner, and the rest of the world will shrug and say “same old, same old.”
If there isn’t a level playing field – at least from a reffing point of view – the game as a whole will suffer.