November 2018 Test Match Review

England 15 vs New Zealand 16

Saturday, November 10
Venue: Twickenham
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Marius Mitrea (Italy)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)

For the second week in a row England have been involved in a game that ended with controversy about a referee’s ruling. A week ago, South Africa were on the receiving end of what most considered a palpably incorrect call by referee Angus Gardiner. England won, and the English media were somewhat ruefully gleeful at the outcome. “Oh well, that is rugby……..”

This week the boot was on the other foot, and England lost after a mildly contentious ruling, and the English media are furiously sulking. Stephen Jones, in particular, is having a hissy fit, writing in the Sunday Times that “England were thwarted by total injustice” and then going so far as to say that the “officials got it utterly wrong. England were robbed.” He went on to say that the offside law is “ignored by officials the world over” – seemingly implying that the referee should have let it go if Courtney Lawes was offside, because that is what is supposed to happen?

Question One for Mr Jones: “Why bother with laws if you want the referee to ignore them?”

Question Two for Mr Jones: “How can you suggest the officials got it utterly wrong when the video and photographic evidence tells us that Lawes was clearly offside?”

Question Three for Mr Jones: “Why are you, a Welshman, so vociferously angry about an England loss?”

Question Four for Mr Jones: “Where were you last week when South Africa were robbed?”

Of course, Mr Jones is not known for being a paragon of objectivity; as a more than somewhat jingoistic supporter of England, he especially loses all touch with reality when the All Blacks are involved. He has a decades long reputation for having a go at the men from New Zealand.

In 2017 NZ Stuff called him an “England Apologist” after he had more derogatory things to say about the All Blacks.

Just in 2018 he has taken a swipe at Dan Carter, back in May, saying, amongst other things “your old grandmother could have played fly-half for the All Blacks, so dominant were they…” and then, in August he had a crack at Super Rugby in general and the Crusaders in particular, saying “This team is nowhere remotely as good as those Crusader teams inspired by Dan Carter some years ago and when you noted that the Lions were ostensibly the second-best team in the whole competition it made you wonder just how shambolic the worst team must be,”

Of course, his lack of objectivity is not purely restricted to the All Blacks. He has had a go at anyone who plays against England. Back in 2013 an Irish journalist dubbed Jones “more a professional troll than a journalist”, while Jones himself threatened legal action and defamation charges against some on social media who criticised him in April 2018.

However, this is supposed to be a review of what happened in the Test between England and New Zealand, and not a discussion about Stephen Jones.

We would do well to have a close look at the incident that has drawn the ire of Mr Jones and a number of other English sports writers. (Not all are in agreement that the referee got it wrong. Ed Morrison in the Mail on Sunday said the referee got it absolutely right. Will Kelleher said that Lawes got his timing wrong. Period.)

I have played the video of this game and the incident in question over and over, and I have no doubt that Lawes was offsides. Photographic evidence supports my view. If we take a close look at the photographs of the incident, Lawes has his foot marginally past the offside line when TJ Perenara has hands on the ball, but critically, the ball is still on the ground. When Perenara picks the ball off the ground, that very moment that the offside line is no longer relevant, Lawes is already moving past the line.

It is fractional, but it is offsides.

Of course, typically of rugby, the Law does not make it 100% clear.

Part is very clear: The written Law does suggest that the act of playing the ball did not put Lawes onside, when he had started in an offside position.

Law 10, Offside, says:

  1. A player who is offside at a ruck, maul, scrum or lineout remains offside, even after the ruck, maul, scrum or lineout has ended.
  2. The player can be put onside only if:
  3. That player immediately retires behind the applicable offside line; or
  4. An opposition player carries the ball five metres in any direction; or
  5. An opposition player kicks the ball.

When then look at the Law as it governs rucks:

Law 15, Ruck, says:

Offside at a Ruck:

  1. Each team has an offside line that runs parallel to the goal line through the ruck participants’ hindmost foot. If that foot is on or behind the goal line, the offside line for that team is the goal line.

and then:

  1. The ruck ends and play continues when the ball leaves the ruck or when the ball in the ruck is on or over the goal line.

In all of the above, there are just two questions to be asked.

First: Where was the offside line?

Second: When was the ball out if the ruck?

Answering the first question – the offside line is “through the ruck participants’ hindmost foot” – in this case there were no feet, George Ford is lying in the ruck with his head on the England side and his feet on the New Zealand side. If the Law were to be interpreted literally, that would mean the offside line was some distance beyond Ford’s head to line up with his feet. Such an interpretation would make a nonsense of the Law, so clearly the line has to be drawn through the last body part of the players in the ruck, in this instance George Ford’s shoulder and head.

The second question is a little more vague. When exactly is a ball out of the ruck, when does it leave the ruck?

Although World Rugby have not issued a Law Clarification on this issue, it has been common practice for more than a decade that the ball leaves the ruck the moment the half-back picks the ball up out of the ruck. Putting hands on the ball is thus not that moment, it is only when the ball lifts from the ground.

Having answered those two questions, then it is clear to me, and I would suggest to any objective observer, that Lawes was offsides and the referee and TMO decision was 100% correct.

Tough on England and the two Mr Jones’s – Eddie and Stephen.

Turning to the Test Match itself

The rain bucketing down at Twickenham immediately suggested that, whatever the strength of the two teams, the conditions would be a great leveller. And so it was.

England, more used to the conditions, started with enormous fire, passion, and aggression, playing the conditions perfectly. They knew how to turn the All Blacks in wet, slippery conditions, putting grubbers in behind, chips and high-balls onto the back three, and playing it in close when they had possession. England also started the game with fire and aggression. So very different to their opening stanza against the Springboks a week ago.

After 25 minutes they had built a 15-0 lead against an All Blacks outfit that looked slow, sometimes bewildered, and a little out of sorts.

Dare I say it? The All Blacks looked ordinary.

But, as almost everyone in the world of rugby has learned, a 15 point advantage over the All Blacks is not nearly enough, and the inevitable end-of-first-half score will come. And it did. A penalty in a very kickable position saw Kieran Read make a brave call for a scrum. The television commentators were incredulous – Why was he not taking the three points on offer?

Read’s call was a good one, the scrum led to Damian McKenzie’s well-taken try near the posts, and the All Black comeback had started.

Owen Farrell fluffed the restart, it went out on the full. A scrum in the midfield, and play was in the England half of the field, a penalty by Barrett, and the 15-0 lead as cut to 15-10 as the halftime whistle went.

After half-time the All Blacks continued to attack. In the 43rd minute Ardie Savea had an open tryline beckoning, but could not hold on to the pass.

The Aussies love to analyse their near-neighbours, and have come up with a statistic that says you have to score at least 30 points to beat the All Blacks. England’s’ 15 was not enough. The All Blacks kept nibbling away at the lead.

A 46th minute drop goal by Barrett, the first in his Test career, clawed the score to 15-13, and then a 60th minute penalty by the unflappable Barrett, and the All Blacks had the lead, 16-15.

And that is all she wrote….

Except of course, for the Try/No Try incident in the 75th minute.

Just for a brief moment Stephen Jones and the whole of Twickenham were delirious with celebratory glee, only for TMO Marius Jonker to step in, and dish out the bad news.

Perhaps there was some justice in the fact that the TMO was a South African?

Fatigue.

In my match report on the game between South Africa and France I spoke of the fatigue that seems evident amongst the South Africans after a long and arduous season that kicked off back in February. I mentioned that the one player in the squad who did not seem to be feeling the effects of fatigue is Eben Etzebeth, who spent most of 2018 recovering from injury and thus did not play much rugby in the season.

My thinking is reinforced by the performance of Brodie Retallick. Yes, he dropped the first kick-off, but then he started to get into the game. He was immense as he went about causing havoc in the England lineouts and in open play. He carried the ball with power, aggression and purpose, His tackles were painfully hard, and his general play was out of the top drawer.

What does he have in common with Eben Etzebeth? Brodie also spent a great big chunk of 2018 off the field recovering from injury and dealing with family issues. He too, is not suffering from the fatigue of a very long season.

The rest of the All Blacks certainly seem to be fighting with fatigue. They seemed fast asleep in the first quarter of this Test. By their own lofty standards they were very ordinary, almost poor. Beauden Barrett struggled with his kicking game, and missed a take under a high ball. Ardie Savea juggled balls he would usually take with his eyes closed. Players were often just out if position or slow to react in the moment. The defence was cart-horse slow when Farrell lined up for his drop goal.

Despite all the evidence of fatigue, the All Blacks remain a well drilled and hugely experienced outfit, and they managed to win a game that lesser teams would have lost.

England Captain

Have we just seen the end of Dylan Hartley’s reign as England captain? He was subbed early in the Test against South Africa, and again left proceedings early in the Test against New Zealand. Already sharing captaincy duties with Owen Farrell, it seems that the latter has become the more influential of the two in almost every aspect of leadership. Farrell was making the calls, and Hartley was nodding and agreeing……

Sonny Bill

Another who seems to be coming to the end of an illustrious career. Off with a shoulder injury that will rule him out for at least a week, if not longer, the likeable man with the remarkable skills seems to be more injury prone than ever. Seemed slow and ponderous on the field, and Ryan Crotty made a huge difference when he took over. Thanks SBW, it has been a pleasure watching you……..

Some Player Ratings

England:

10 Owen Farrell: 8/10 Has certainly stepped up as a leader, with exceptional work-rate and focus. Made a massive tackle on Keiran Read, and played with super commitment.

7 Sam Underhill: 9/10 England have discovered a gem as the youngster threw himself into the fray with superb focus and commitment. Was very nearly the hero of the day, only to be denied by the TMO.

4 Maro Itoje: 7/10 Got his discipline under control, just, but lived and fought right in the frontline. Some superb tackles.

New Zealand.

15 Damian McKenzie: 9/10 Even in conditions not suited to his game, he was a constant menace with the ball in hand, and calm and brave under the high-balls sent his way.

10 Beauden Barrett: 8/10 Started a bit slowly, but was the difference between the two sides when it really mattered. Kicked well, and laid on McKenzie’s try. Got his first ever Test drop-goal too.

4 Brodie Retallick: 9/10 My Man of the Match. Simply terrorised the England lineout, carried the ball with serious intent and tackled like a monster. After his first-minute error, Retallick was absolutely superb.

23 Ryan Crotty: 8/10 Brought stability to the inside centre slot when he replaced SBW, and was a catalyst in New Zealand’s fightback.

The scorers:

For England:
Tries: Ashton, Hartley
Con: Farrell
Drop-goal: Farrell

For New Zealand:
Try: McKenzie
Con: Barrett
Pens: Barrett 2
Drop-goal: Barrett

England: 15 Elliot Daly, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ben Te’o, 11 Jonny May, 10 Owen Farrell (cc), 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Mark Wilson, 7 Sam Underhill, 6 Brad Shields, 5 George Kruis, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Dylan Hartley (cc), 1 Ben Moon
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Alec Hepburn, 18 Harry Williams, 19 Charlie Ewels, 20 Courtney Lawes, 21 Danny Care, 22 George Ford, 23 Jack Nowell

New Zealand: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Samuel Whitelock, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Karl Tu’inukuafe
Replacements: 16 Dane Coles, 17 Ofa Tuungafasi, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Matt Todd, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Richie Mo’unga, 23 Ryan Crotty

Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Marius Mitrea (Italy)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)