Welcome to rugby in the 21st century, a sport that ties itself in knots with its laws and thinks the way around that is to add, not subtract, layers of complexity.
This is an excerpt from The Bounce, a Substack newsletter by Dylan Cleaver.
You almost dread reading the headlines because there’s a part of you that knows so much of it is going to be about the officials. But despite doing so, I’d rather not start on that.
To be brutally frank, I was barely even interested in the performance of the four-time champion Springboks. They are what they were and were what they are: an immutable phalanx that bows to neither will nor circumstance. They won three knockout games in three weeks by a total of three points.
That’s astonishing and yet somehow they’re not – and if that sounds like a backhanded compliment, take note that Roger Federer, who was in the crowd supporting the men in green, proved that a backhand can be a thing of great beauty.
The All Blacks, however… now there was a fascinating study in human fallibility. For 80 minutes they managed to be both deeply, deeply flawed and wonderfully heroic.
They were dreadful in the first half hour, the lineout a shambles, their kick-game and kick-reception wobbly, and even the ability to pass the ball along a chain – something supposedly innate to New Zealand teams – was laboured, with several thrown to the back shoulder or behind a player.
Still, they came close to conjuring a try out of little, with Jordie Barrett’s pop-kick under advantage bouncing agonisingly out of Ardie Savea’s reach. A portent, as it turned out.
Otherwise, the Boks, if not totally in control, looked to be playing exactly the sort of game they wanted to play. In the second half, though, the All Blacks left having painted a different picture.
Losing their skipper galvanised them. Before the tournament, Sam Cane talked to me for a piece in the final magazine edition of NZ Rugby World. Asked whether he feared the consequences of losing in France, he said: “It’s only natural that occasionally your mind wanders to those places but for me the excitement about having the chance to win overrides the fear of losing,” he said, admitting he had a picture in his mind’s eye of him lifting the Webb Ellis Cup.
Instead the picture he saw was of Siya Kolisi with the shiny gold thing above his head. Cane could be forgiven for watching on, wondering why luck and the bunker delivered him, quite literally, a set of different cards. No wonder he looked a broken man.
And so into this breach go we.
The team of officials, led by referee Wayne Barnes, had, as feared by many, an outsized influence on the game. There were decisions both big and small that ended up having an enormous impact on the quality of the final, but there were not that many you can say were deadset wrong:
- Shannon Frizell’s yellow for his combination of a neck roll and landing with his weight on Bongi Mbonambi’s leg might have been harsh but, ultimately, it benefited New Zealand because one of South Africa’s cornerstones was gone early and as willing as Deon Fourie was in replacement, he was a weak link.
- Cane’s red was, under the laws World Rugby has burdened this sport with, a red. He said so himself when asked: “No, not unlucky. We know that collisions have got to be low. If anything, I got a little bit surprised that he stepped back in my direction, but it’s no excuse. We’ve been here for two months, and we’ve seen how things have been ruled.”
- It WAS a knock on in the lead up to Aaron Smith’s try that wasn’t.
- New Zealand got robbed with the Ardie Savea penalty that wasn’t before halftime, costing them three points. Wayne Barnes admitted as much and it did make you wonder how rugby has got itself so tangled up that they can chalk off a try for a knock-on way back on the other side of the pitch, but they can’t intervene on a blatantly wrong penalty. (This is not advocating for more TMO involvement, just highlighting the inconsistencies.)
There were decisions not taken, too, that raised eyebrows, both involving Eben Etzebeth. How exactly did he avoid yellow under the “cynical” clause when he got into the passing lane while retreating when the All Blacks had numbers on the short side? It looked for all money like he led with an elbow into Ethan de Groot’s mush while carrying the ball, also.
Having just spent a couple of hundred words re-litigating some (not all) of the flashpoints, it might seem batshit crazy to say this, but the accuracy or otherwise of the decisions is not the biggest problem here. It’s the application of video technology as a whole.
League has got it mostly right, cricket has got it mostly right, football has got it half right, rugby has got it nearly all wrong.
This World Cup has demonstrated that it is a blight.
Rugby’s signature, what separates it from the other oval-ball codes, is that every facet is a contest for possession. Set-piece, in the air, on the ground, it’s an ongoing battle for control of the pill. That battle is primarily fought with collisions. Thirty athletes in a confined space all trying to win the ball, all primed to thump each other in order to get it.
The idea that these real-time collisions need to be slowed down and exhaustively analysed to ensure they’re flawless is the fundamental problem of modern rugby. As I have written before, the idea that it is making the game safer is hopelessly flawed.
Malice needs to be stamped out (honestly, how many malevolent acts do you see on a field these days?), and recklessness needs to be penalised, but the idea that somebody sitting in front of a screen can interpret the degree of recklessness and intent is not only highly dubious science, but more pointedly makes this a difficult sport for the causal fan to love.
Rant nearly over.
The All Blacks had chances to win and very nearly did. The officials didn’t ultimately “cost” them the match, a couple of kicks a foot or two wide of each upright did, but some bloke called Tom Foley was the single-most dominant figure of the final, ahead of the colossal Pieter-Steph du Toit and the sensational Mark Tele’a.
Good luck trying to sell your sport with a picture of him on the front of a Weet-Bix packet.