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FEATURE Time gentlemen, please

Time gentlemen, please
1 year ago

Was it ‘robbery’ or was it simply ‘ridiculous’? Australia seems to be almost evenly split. In the immediate aftermath, Tim Horan said it was ‘a disgraceful decision’ from a referee who ‘cracked under pressure’. Morgan Turinui thought the official should be sanctioned – ‘you don’t contrive a situation to cost the better team the game’ – while Matt Giteau tweeted; ‘that’s the worst call I’ve ever seen’. Ironically, when it came to piling in on Mathieu Raynal, Australia wasted no time whatsoever.

If you missed the moment – or the fallout – from last week’s barnstorming Bledisloe Cup game in Melbourne, where on earth have you been? Seventy-eight minutes in, Australia up by three, New Zealand penalised five metres short of the Wallaby line but then awarded a scrum after referee Raynal decided Australia were time-wasting on their kick to touch, a position from which the wily Will Jordan fashioned a last-gasp, game-winning try for Jordie Barrett. High drama or French farce? Opinion hasn’t been this divided since the invention of black and white.

Look, it’s hard to argue that Raynal didn’t make himself crystal clear on the penalty kick to touch. He asked both captain, Nic White, and fly-half, Bernard Foley, to get on with it, then asked them again, then stopped the clock to reinforce the point, then restarted the clock, then nudged Foley again and then finally lost patience, not surprisingly given 47 seconds had passed since the penalty had been awarded. If you’d like a spoonful of context here, Karsten Warholm could’ve run a 400 metres hurdles in that time with a second to spare.

Technically, Raynal was spot on. What constitutes delaying the game is at the referee’s discretion and this referee clearly felt, understandably given he was talking to a brick wall, that Australia were running down the clock. Foley said afterwards he thought time was still off, odd given Raynal was a metre away from him when he said ‘Time On’ and blew his whistle. Tough to make that one wash.

In a green and gold broadside in The Sydney Morning Herald, Iain Payten said the incident highlighted a thorny problem with refereeing; in his words, ‘it should not be just a question of can I blow my whistle but should I blow it’? It other words, materialism; yes, I’ve just cause to intervene but is it material to what’s going on? And Payten’s absolutely right. It’s one of the thorniest areas of refereeing.

Mathieu Raynal speaks to Nic White
Mathieu Raynal speaks to Nic White at the end of the controversial Wallabies v All Blacks game (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

But if Raynal deems time’s being wilfully wasted, that’s material to the game, a question of both ‘can’ and ‘should’. Put it this way, how long is he supposed to wait for a team to comply with four, perfectly plain instructions? Folk have homes to go to and, on Thursdays, Melbourne’s trams shut down at midnight.

Australia Head Coach, Dave Rennie, also played the empathy card. ‘I think you’ve got to have a feel for the game, a feel for the game and the situation’ he said. ‘So if you feel a team’s wasting time, then stop the clock, then they kick it out and then you play the game and the teams decide it.’ All of which sounds reasonable enough, except that the ball can’t be in play – in this case, kicked into touch – when time’s off.

Part of your game management is to listen to the referee. So when the referee says ‘time on’, you have to play it. I just saw it out there. I heard very clearly what the ref said.
Ian Foster, All Blacks head coach

Rennie also said he hadn’t ‘seen a decision like that any level’ and if that’s what he says, I believe him. He’s one of rugby’s good buggers. But we’ve seen numerous examples of teams being pinged for time-wasting at rucks, scrums and line-outs, even the odd conversion and penalty shot at the poles. It doesn’t happen every day because, generally, players are smart enough to listen to what the referee’s asking for. In this instance, Australia weren’t.

Which is, essentially, the nuts of the thing. If you talk to coaches about discipline, the one thing that waters their eyeballs is players giving away penalties and possession simply because they were ignoring what the official was telling them; ‘shitty’ stuff, as one once described it. New Zealand Coach Ian Foster, rightly, summed it up. ‘Part of your game management is to listen to the referee’ he said afterwards, ‘So when the referee says ‘time on’, you have to play it. I just saw it out there. I heard very clearly what the ref said.’

Essentially, this is the traffic warden argument, isn’t it? If I pull up on a double-yellow line and a meter-maid tells me I need to move my motor pronto and I ignore her – then ignore her again, and again and then again – then I can’t exactly grumble if I end up with a ticket clamped under the wiper. That’s on me, isn’t it?

Raynal endured close scrutiny after a white-hot Bledisloe clash (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Was Raynal consistent on time-wasting throughout the game? Again, it’s tough to argue he wasn’t. The statistics suggest that, on penalty kicks to touch, New Zealand had five during the match (taking 20”/14”/20”/15”/13”) and Australia eight (25”/18”/22”/30”/ 35” – given a hurry-up warning – 18”/22”/47”). In other words, Australia took virtually three times longer over their last kick as New Zealand took on average (16”), not forgetting the warning over the 35” delay. It was hardly a left-field call.

You can have sympathy here for Australia’s angst. Against all odds, they’d put themselves in position to drag The Tin back over The Ditch for the first time in 20 years. But the giveaway was the Wallaby backs lined up outside Foley, who in the five seconds prior to Raynal’s intervention were waving their arms and screaming at him to kick it out and in the five seconds after were spitting tin- tacks all over the turf. They knew. So how was it Foley didn’t?

If Nic White’s almost petulant – ‘Mate, that just cost us the Rugby Championship’ – was an example of how the Wallabies had been conducting themselves throughout the game, then it’s hardly surprising that they weren’t making any friends

Cajoled by social media, Nigel Owens felt it was ‘a fair and strong refereeing call by Raynal’, a referee, it’s worth noting, with a decade’s experience at Test level. No question, it was nutsy. So too was tracking down Nic White on the pitch after the final whistle and offering his commiserations, only for White to respond: ‘Mate, that just cost us the Rugby Championship’. Raynal was having none of it. ‘That’s not fair what you did,’ he said, the hand on the shoulder suddenly a frank forefinger in White’s chest. ‘You just run the time and you know exactly. If you think I am not capable to give a scrum and turn over ball, you make a mistake.’

Australia said afterwards they’d be sending ‘World Rugby’ a ‘please explain’ memo, possibly in capital letters. The reply shouldn’t take too long to draft. Perhaps the Wallabies would be better served asking a few questions of themselves; not why were we ‘robbed’ by Raynal but how did we end up with three players in the sin-bin during which time New Zealand scored 21 points?

Or, indeed, addressing their management of the referee. If Nic White’s almost petulant – ‘Mate, that just cost us the Rugby Championship’ – was an example of how the Wallabies had been conducting themselves throughout the game, then it’s hardly surprising that they weren’t making any friends. Raynal’s riposte certainly suggested his patience was exhausted and, certainly, if you niggle the referee to that extent, you’re playing with fire.

Sam Warburton
Warren Gatland said he picked Sam Warburton because of his manner with referees (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

It’s a crucial aspect of the modern game. Warren Gatland was once asked why he wanted Sam Warburton as his Lions’ captain. ‘Because he’s brilliant at handing referees’ said Gatland, a point emphatically proved when Warburton’s intervention in the last inches of the 15-15 draw in the Third Test in New Zealand prompted Romain Poite to downgrade a potential game-winning All Black penalty for offside to a scrum for accidental offside. Effectively, Warburton’s silver tongue turned a losing series into a drawn series and, predictably, Poite was pilloried across New Zealand.

And here we are again; an honest, vastly experienced, top-flight referee getting the flamethrower treatment for – excuse me – getting it right. Referees getting burned when they make genuine mistakes is tough enough to stomach but getting torched when they’re bang on point is intolerable, the more so in a sport which, at its grassroots, is woefully struggling to find willing officials. Whether he’s right or he’s wrong, the referee is always right. If you don’t accept that premise, then best find something else to do with your weekend.


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