A weekend of intrigue and villains
Where to start?
The wrap up of the June internationals for the All Blacks and Springboks, the start of the British and Irish Lions test series in Australia, the resumption of Super Rugby, the IRB World Cup Sevens, and the end of the World under-20 tournament….all worthy topics, all featuring some great top-shelf rugby.
My pick out of all that, for the sheer intrigue value is the Lions-Wallabies series.
I’ll admit to wanting the Lions to win the first test….not because of any great support for them, or personal antipathy towards Australia, but for the sake of the series.
My feeling last week had been that if the Wallabies won, the visitors would be staring down a clean sweep, because they have a few shortcomings that the Aussies would be in better shape to exploit with a test under their belts.
Now, as it stands, the pressure is all on the home team to respond in Melbourne. If they can’t then it’s all over and the Lions will have their first series victory since South Africa in 1997.
The Lions sure were lucky to win in Brisbane. Kurtley Beale missed two kickable penalties late in the game….the second can be put down to the fact that he was playing in moulded sole boots, or “blades” despite playing on a shifting, heavy, and rather sub-standard pitch.
I just can’t imagine a Steyn, a Carter or a Wilkinson overlooking such an important detail, but with his soles caked with mud, Beale slipped and it was all over.
Australia had their luck too. James Horwill quite clearly put his boot into the face of Alun Wyn Jones, and yet was neither yellow carded or punished by the judiciary.
It did make me wonder what Brett Gosper, the IRBs Australian Chief Executive made of it. Last November Gosper's intervention saw a one-week penalty on All Black Adam Thomson for a similar offence doubled to two weeks.
The aftermath of the test has been drowned out in the criticism by the Lions media chorus over the refereeing of Kiwi Chris Pollock. Pollock was not perfect, no referee is, but neither was he the villain he is being portrayed as. His “crime” was to referee the game the way he is instructed to, and penalise players leaving their feet, not releasing the tackler, or holding on in the tackle, in the interests of positive rugby.
After three weeks in Australia, the Lions should have been ready for this style of refereeing, and adopted a “when in Rome” attitude. Instead they tried things they get away with at home and were punished to the point where it should have cost them the game.
Over the past month we have had three Northern Hemisphere referees control the France v All Black series in New Zealand.
They seem to referee the breakdown quite differently, and are way more lenient on players leaving their feet, and on the tackle assist competing for the ball without releasing the tackled player.
I have come to the conclusion that it is not necessarily the referees' fault, but a reflection of the expectation placed on them by coaches, officials and so on, in their respective home patches.
It really does need to be sorted out otherwise every major international contest is going to end with claims of cheating and moaning about the differing interpretations of the law.
Craig Joubert will have the whistle for the second test, and if the Lions' post-Brisbane outcry is an attempt to influence him, then I suspect they are barking up the wrong tree.
Still, that’s all a sub-plot. I can’t wait for the second test. Australia have a few injury concerns and the Lions have lost the redoubtable Paul O’Connell.
We saw four cracking'wingers tries at the weekend, and both teams see their outsides as their chief weapons, so we can expect to see some great running out wide and up the middle. The Lions will need better support of the ball carrier, and a much better effort out of their scrumhalf, after a lame effort by Mike Phillips in Brisbane.
Australia will need to reshuffle their backline and kick their goals. The loss of Digby Ioane is huge, but they have in Israel Folau perhaps the most exciting player in the game, all of a sudden.
Meantime the All Blacks wrapped up their sweep of the French, who provided ideal opposition ahead of the Rugby Championship.
Expectation was that the All Blacks would kick on from their second test blowout and score a comfortable win, but the French steeled themselves for the sake of their inspirational skipper Thierry Dusautoir, playing his last game in New Zealand, and made a real contest out of it.
Not a bad thing. There were signs of a lack of focus and intensity from some of the players in the week leading up to the test, and with three names to be trimmed from the squad ahead of the Rugby Championship, the heat is on to perform in the next three weeks of Super Rugby.
I managed to catch the two games from South Africa. I was happy for Scott Johnson, an old mate from before his coaching days, to see his team get up over Italy, even if he had to admit that his team hadn’t played that well. Italy were poor, as they tend to be away from the comforts of home.
And Samoa blotted their copybook with an ill disciplined performance against the Boks.
The obvious villain for Samoa was Alesana Tuilagi, who was rightly red carded for his crude shot on Jean de Villiers, but was also guilty of flying recklessly out of the line on defence and being inconsiderate of his teammates on attack.
And then there was the bizarre case of James So’oialo and an apparent attempted heist on the crown jewels of Bloemfontein. Adriaan Strauss was enraged, angry like we have never seen him before, and the evidence was compelling...if you can fight through the excruciation of it all you will see that So’oialo has both arms wrapped around Strauss, and looks for all the world like he might have one in each hand.
But the judicial officer, as in the case of Horwill, accepted the player’s plea that he was not intending to do anything malicious, adding that to find him guilty would be tantamount to calling the player a liar.
Now I don’t know either of the players personally, and they may well be the most honest, upstanding people in the game, and I too am not in any way suggesting they are liars either…but if the judicial officers the world over are to start acquitting players because “he said he didn’t do it” then the whole process is heading into the realms of ga-ga land.