The opening rounds of last year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa 2020 competition was characterised by exceptionally high penalty counts.
That was attributed to the new breakdown interpretations, which players initially struggled to adjust with. As the weeks passed, players became better accustomed to the new laws while the referees also appeared to ease off on the penalties.
A year on, Saturday’s night match between the Highlanders and Chiefs in Dunedin was again laden with penalties, with 23 whistled up by Ben O’Keeffe.
It wasn’t the breakdown that was causing both side’s troubles, however; it something much more mundane.
Time and time again, the two teams were pinged for players advancing in front of the kicker.
Mitch Brown, who notched up his 50th match for the Chiefs, was stung twice by O’Keeffe, with the referee telling Chiefs captain Brad Weber that the punishments could increase for Brown if he wasn’t careful.
The offences were all relatively minor in the scheme of things. More often than not, forwards were the ones facing O’Keeffe’s wrath – and rarely were they advancing to actually put pressure on the defending side.
Still, O’Keeffe was consistent – and that’s what both coaches focussed on in the post-match wrap-up.
“That’s the law,” said Highlanders head Tony Brown. “The referees are doing a great job at refereeing the law, and players aren’t adapting quick enough.
“Just not quite smart enough in those situations, for us, and obviously the Chiefs had a couple of those situations as well.”
In years gone by, TMOs have been able to offer their guidance in real-time. Those rules have changed, however, and the impacts of that change were clear in Saturday night's #SuperRugbyAotearoa clash. #HIGvCHI
— The XV Rugby (@TheXV) April 10, 2021
Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan had a similar take.
“A lot of the penalties are legit,” he said. “Players on both sides needed to be smarter.
“As long as the referees are consistent. If they ask you not to advance on a kick then don’t advance. It’s as simple as that.”
McMillan, who’s now led the Chiefs to three victories on the trot, didn’t lump all the blame on his players, however.
“It’s probably challenging at times, especially here [at Forsyth Barr Stadium]. The noise is unbelievable under the roof.
“While we can hear the refs’ comms in our box pretty clear, not everyone on the field is going to be able to hear that, or see when people put them onside.
“So, they’re going to be a little inaccurate at times there, but as long as the referees are consistent then we just have to be better in that space.”
The Chiefs’ 26-23 extra-time win takes them into third place on the Super Rugby Aotearoa table – two ahead of the Highlanders (who have played an extra game) and two behind the Blues.
While the Chiefs’ finals fate is still in their own hands, the Highlanders are now effectively out of the contest.
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