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'The VAR of rugby': Captain's referral under the spotlight after fans question the spirit of the Crusaders' final challenge

By Sam Smith
(Jeremy Ward / Photosport NZ)

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The revamped rules in the 2021 Super Rugby Aotearoa have brought in a captain’s referral rule, allowing each skipper to challenge one decision in the first 75-minutes of the game and any decision in the final five minutes.


Such is the tightness of Super Rugby Aotearoa, multiple games have been decided in the last few minutes or extra time this season, with two golden point games last week. Last night’s 26-25 win by the Chiefs at home over the Crusaders was no exception, with the game coming down to the final moments.

The Chiefs arrested the lead with a 78th minute penalty to first five Damian McKenzie but after an average exit from the kick-off, the Chiefs had to weather one last Crusaders’ push with just a one-point lead.

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As the Crusaders set up in the middle of the field for a potential drop goal, Chiefs lock Naitoa Ah Kuoi latched onto an isolated Crusaders ball carrier to win a match-sealing penalty with less than 30 seconds to go.

With no visible reason to challenge, Crusaders captain Scott Barrett threw a last ditch referral under the new rules which allow for anything to be challenge in the final five minutes.

Had the TMO found anything wrong with Ah Kuoi’s contest at the ruck, the penalty would have been reversed, giving the defending champions a kick to win from directly in front.

The referral system has created perverse incentives to challenge anything in the final moments of a game, robbing fans and players of the celebratory moment as referees spend time looking everything over.


The Chiefs have been victim of this strategy twice, with the Blues trying to claim a forward pass in the phase before McKenzie’s match-winning try back in Round 5.

Irish analyst Murray Kinsella said the referral ‘really took the sting out of a massive turnover moment’ highlighting the ensuing silence was ‘very odd’ when the Chiefs crowd should have been celebrating.

South African rugby writer Jon Cardinelli likened the referral to when a batsmen is ‘plumb LBW’ and uses a review to just ‘take a chance’. Other fans decried the spirit of the Crusaders’ referral, calling it a ‘joke’ and a ‘desperate last ditch attempt’.


The Chiefs fourth win in a row propelled them into second on the Super Rugby Aotearoa table, whilst handing the Crusaders’ their second loss to stay within touching distance of the defending champions.

This year Super Rugby Aotearoa will feature a grand final with the top side’s facing off, which could be a re-match of last night’s pulsating clash in Hamilton.

The Blues, sitting in third place after losing to the Highlanders on Friday night, travel to Christchurch to face the Crusaders in a key clash while the Chiefs host the Hurricanes at home.


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'The VAR of rugby': Captain's referral under the spotlight after fans question the spirit of the Crusaders' final challenge