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Tonga improve but luck out

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Refereeing blunder blights another World Cup game

Heading into the 2019 Rugby World Cup, there was a concern that the stringent sanctions on high and reckless tackles would be the major talking point of the tournament, with an abundance of yellow and red cards ending the competitive nature of a number of the contests.

Whilst those tackle laws and sanctions have been the talking point so far, it is for a very different reason, with a number of shots to the head going unpunished – or under-punished – in the first week of the group stage. World Rugby has been efficient in citing these incidents and handing out the requisite punishment, though that has no influence on the result of the game in which the indiscretions were committed.

Reece Hodge’s hit, which caused Fiji’s star forward on the day, Peceli Yato, to leave the field with a concussion, helped swing momentum in that game, and Samoa were lucky for two of their players not to see red against Russia, something which could well have seen the European minnows pick up an unlikely win.

Piers Francis’ high tackle in the opening seconds of England’s game with the USA was also missed live and though few would have predicted a US win, even with England down to 14, it could have had a significant impact on the final Pool C standings.

Unfortunately, the issue of referee and TMO errors reared its head again on Saturday, as Tonga, who fell to a 28-12 loss to Argentina, were denied what seemed a stonewall penalty try for a shoulder charge from Tomas Lavanini, when David Halaifonua had the try line firmly in his sights. Despite having his left arm tucked and making initial contact with the left shoulder, Lavanini went unpunished for the hit.

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Had a penalty try been awarded and Tonga scored their second half try, the scoreline would have been 28-19 to Argentina with 15 minutes left to play, with momentum having swung fully the way of the Sea Eagles.

Away from the controversy over the Lavanini hit, Tonga put in a much-improved display from their tournament opener against England, with Telusa Veainu and Maama Vaipulu standing out, as well as the half-back combination of Sonatane Takulua and James Faiva seeming to find their groove. With Veainu’s counter-attacking and incision as a finisher in the starting XV, Tonga looked a much more dangerous outfit than the one that struggled to create any sort of attacking threat against England.

Toutai Kefu’s side now have a welcome eight-day turnaround before facing France in Kumamoto and they showed glimpses against Argentina that they can worry Les Bleus in that game, although the fact a blatant officiating error has cost them a possible losing bonus point, or even an unlikely win, is something which will grate with them – and neutrals – over the coming days.

Rugby is a tough game to referee with its litany of laws and sanctions and when the 50/50 calls go wrong, there can be no great complaint, but unfortunately the clash in Higashiosaka on Saturday bore witness to something that was anything but 50/50.

Watch: RugbyPass exclusive – Tonga: Road to Japan

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Refereeing blunder blights another World Cup game