Wales see Red as Aussie Gold have Black night…

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After five intense weeks, 46 matches, 256 tries, 18 yellow cards and two controversial red cards, the Rugby World Cup is down to the very pointy end – and a re-run of the inaugural final from 1987.

Wales were heartbroken by their narrow 1 point loss to France following the 17th minute red card for Welsh skipper Sam Warburton by Irish referee Alain Rolland, which has caused some controversy.

In 2007, the IRB approved a Law clarification which essentially made it clear that tackles involving a player being lifted off the ground and tipped horizontally, and were then either forced or dropped to the ground, were illegal and constitute dangerous play.

The summary for possible sanction scenarios when a tackler horizontally lifts a player off the ground are:

1. The player is lifted and then forced or “speared” into the ground. A red card should be issued for this type of tackle.
2. The lifted player is dropped to the ground from a height with no regard to the player’s safety. A red card should be issued for this type of tackle.
3. For all other types of dangerous lifting tackles, it may be considered a penalty or yellow card is sufficient.

Referees have been instructed not to make decisions based on what they consider was the intention of the offending player, but based on an objective assessment (as per Law 10.4 (e)) of the circumstances of the tackle.

The difficulty for players, coaches, fans, and indeed referees, is that contextual judgement and materiality is ruled out.

Was it a dangerous tackle? Yes?
Was it cynical and deliberate? No.
Was it a yellow? Maybe.

It was a very cruel way to end what has been a great tournament for Wales who deserved to make the final and would undoubtedly have pushed the All Blacks further than France seem likely to do.

As for the All Blacks, they face France in a re-run of the first World Cup final (when they prevailed 29-9). A very one sided semi-final against the Tasman rivals from Australia failed to spark into life on a damp night in Auckland, and Quade Cooper struggled to ignite the Wallabies.

It wasn’t a free flowing game, despite a sparkling and powerful start by the ABs who scored a stunning try just 6 minutes in and threatened to run riot. Australia kept them at bay and they didn’t threaten the try line again – and were content with a workman-like and deserved victory to reach their third final.

That final will be managed by Craig Joubert who has had a magnificent World Cup and deserves his place behind the whistle on Sunday. By the time he blows the final whistle of the 2011 tournament, New Zealand should be crowned champions and send a nation into celebrations 24 years in the making.

Bye Bye Bryce..?

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International condemnation for Bryce Lawrence has continued to gather momentum and he has now been overlooked for the semi-finals, and seemingly the final, by the IRB. Pressure from rugby fans has also led to a Facebook campaign for action to be taken and Bryce Lawrence himself is reported to be considering quitting the game.

It says something about the way sport and media (and social media) has changed and referees are under far more scrutiny than ever before.

The fundamental difference between Bryce Lawrence’s performances and other refereeing mistakes (Wayne Barnes for example) is that on the whole other mistakes are just that – a blip in the game – and players/coaches/fans are mature enough to realise that their team made more mistakes that cost them the game than a refereeing blemish.

Bryce Lawrence has just looked out of his depth for the entire tournament (and in reality before it) and the IRB need to realise they made a mistake in appointing him.

Given the catalouge of issues that have gone before in his performances, from the Lions in 2009 to the recent Australia v Ireland World Cup pool match, it is no wonder that the pressure is beginning to take its toll.

Refereeing is more about the mental fitness than the physical – and Bryce has sadly demonstrated that his current approach is wrong – particularly compared to some of his contemporaries – Nigel Owens, Alain Rolland and Craig Joubert (who has been fantastic and could be a good bet to ref the final).

It would be sad if Bryce Lawrence quits all forms of the game – but it is probably right that the IRB take a view and reconsider his involvement at the highest level.

All referees have car crash games, where everything goes wrong, but Bryce is a metaphorical regular pile-up! You wouldn’t allow such incompetent drivers on the road and the IRB shouldn’t encourage the same from their elite.

Brought-into Disrepute

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With England crashing out of the World Cup (and Tuilagi splashing out!), Ireland crushed by an inspirational Welsh side, Australia proving you dont need possession, territory or ability to win a Test match and New Zealand stuttering to a win over the battling Pumas, the main quarter final talking point was yet again the substandard performance of Bryce Lawrence, who looked inept and like a rabbit in the headlights as he took charge of Australia v South Africa.

It appears an odd decision to have a kiwi refereeing a match that would decide the likely team to play the All Blacks the week later. This was compounded by the numerous mistakes and indecision he showed, particularly in the closing stages where South Africa demolished a ramshackle Wallaby team in every facet of the match.

However, despite their dominance and the Aussies committing numerous indiscretions, Bryce seemed only interested in awarding scrums, until an innocuous issue at the lineout that he determined was deliberate and gave Australia a lifeline and passage into the Semi-finals.

Hopefully, the silver lining means that it is unlikely that Bryce will darken the World Cup again.

It appears that referees here are too getting more of a hard time from clubs. Broughton Park RFC in Manchester are being investigated after their online tirade against a referee in a recent match. The club have become known on occasions for some blinkered views of the game and dont appear to be a fan of referees at times.

The recent written outburst came after a losing performance against league leaders Sandbach, which they lost narrowly by 3 points. However, they missed two last minute penalties to pull off an upset. This fact is overlooked and undersold in their commentary. The only positive is the number of referees and clubs who have shown support for the ref concerned (who isnt me – but is an outstanding referee).

Yes its hypocritical to lambast Bryce Lawrence and then decry the actions of a club for seemingly doing the same – but Bryce is a professional and should not make the mistakes he does, Broughton Park hit out at a referee who actually had a great performance and was more sour grapes, Mancunian style*.

*It should be noted that the club have now altered their match report, which is a very welcome and positive move!

My achy breaky nose

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I have been offline for a few weeks as I learnt the critical lesson that is – “dont get too close to the action”!

During a cracking match a series of pick and drives from close range meant me to move in close as the team inched their way to the line, and I needed to be in a good position to see any try that might be scored.

As the team drove the last half meter I got too close. The prop picked up the ball, and as the tackle came in he swung his arm back to knock the would-be-tackler back, but instead swung back and hit me full in the face, knocking me off my feet and unceremoniously onto my arse! However, ever aware, I managed to still see through the tears and blood that the try was scored!

Lesson learnt – dont fu*k with props on the try line!

Heimlich Maneuver in the Park

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With the waiting finally over the World Cup kicked off with an amazing ceremony in Auckland before the All Blacks took on Tonga on last Friday night.

What has been great about all the matches so far is that all the so called ‘minnows’ are anything but. The conditions have played there part – but the smaller nations have stepped up and significantly demonstrated that the gap is closing.

An upset is definitely on the cards. Other than the All Blacks obligatory choke! It seems that 24 years is too long to wait – and the pressure is mounting with Graham Henry rotating his team yet again.

The biggest talking point was over the officiating of the Wales v South Africa match – with the Welsh squad and management calling foul over a missed penalty kick.

A kick that missed. A kick that the replays showed as inconclusive – but appeared to have missed. A kick that THREE officials all agreed missed.

Lets not focus on the other two missed penalties, their try from a forward pass or the missed dropped goal in front of the posts. Wales smashed South Africa all over the park – but couldn’t seal the deal.

But rather than focus on their own short comings they are focusing on blaming the officials for not taking the action they are not able to take – and the action that if they did (by going to the TMO) – would have told them the kick missed!

Last weekend I had an irate coach very unhappy about a similar moment within the first half. A line out within their 22 that led to a driving maul and a crash over try.

The coach was furious – lambasting me for not noticing it was not straight. It was straight but that is irrelevant. On and on he went about parity and continuity.

I nodded and listened and then mischievously suggested it may not have been straight – a rare error from me on the day. But there were many errors and problems in the game. I offered to go as far as buying him a pint for every error he felt I made – in exchange for a pint for every mistake his team made.

He declined ruefully.

His team lost 66-0!

Lawrence of Anomaly

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It’s tough at the top, or so they say. The reality is that actually it is tougher in the middle. The expectations placed on referees is growing at all levels of the game, and none more so than those lucky (?!) few who make the international grade.

Tomorrow England face Argentina in their opening World Cup clash in Dunedin. The most significant name on the team sheet is that of one Bryce Lawrence, the New Zealand referee charged with the arbitration of the match.

Normally the choice of referee is simply a matter of curiosity as a rugby fan, but this selection has some serious significance. England have NEVER won a game with Lawrence in charge. Coincidence? Maybe.

But then consider that the recent shock (but deserved) win of Italy over France in this year’s Six Nations had signore Lawrence at the helm. In matches with southern hemisphere versus northern hemisphere teams the south have always prevailed. Bias? Maybe.

Worst of all, Lawrence had the most significant impact on the 2009 British Lions tour to South Africa.

He officiated the first test so badly that most international press had a field day in criticising his quality and pedigree – he is after all the only New Zealand international referee (Steve Walsh in now Australian) and his dad was also an international referee.

He came into his own special league less than 60 seconds into the second British Lions test when he made the recommendation to yellow card Schalk Burger for eye gouging! Any under 9 player could tell you that contact with the eyes is a simple and straight red – a concept seemingly way beyond Lawrence. Incompetence? Maybe.

So tomorrow promises to be a tough day at the office for England. Even if a competent display is forthcoming will Lawrence favour the south over the north, the underdog over the favourite, as appears to have been is form for the last 3 years at International level. Anomaly? Maybe…..