Rugby World Cup Comments 2

The Schedule, the Weather, the Referees & the High Shots, the Injuries & Stuff

Just a week and a bit into RWC 2019 and so much to talk about.

In the short space of just 8 days we have seen Uruguay beat the fancied Fijians, effectively ending the Islanders’ hopes of a quarterfinal playoff, then we saw the surprise win of Japan over Ireland on Saturday, a result that easily matches, if not surpasses the Brave Blossoms’ result against the Springboks in 2015.

The Japan result makes a bit of a mockery of World Rugby’s ranking system as Ireland were the official Number Two side in the world as they took the field against Japan, ranked 9thas the game kicked off. The result drops Ireland down to fourth, while Japan rise to 8th, displacing Scotland for the time being. Scotland may climb above them again after today’s game against Samoa.

Those two games aside, results have gone pretty much as expected. The bigger teams have outgunned the smaller, with only the Wallaby/Wales game perhaps being a real match-up in terms of World Rugby Tier One nations. It was a humdinger of a game in many respects, with Wales playing a well-structured game and taking the honours despite some desperate attempts by the Wallabies as they fought back in the second half. 

One has to question some of the Australian selection decisions, especially that of starting with Bernard Foley and Will Genia. The change in the entire Wallaby dynamic with the introduction of Matt Toomua and Nick White was evident to all.

Sadly, though, the game will not be remembered for the rugby that was played.

Once again the game is remembered for some weird refereeing by none other than Romain Poite, a man who seems to attract controversy whenever he is involved in a game, be it as referee or as an assistant carrying the flag. 

More on this subject a little later.

Match Scheduling Inequalities

Whilst everyone has been distracted by the discussions surrounding the issue of officiating at the Rugby World Cup, and the application of some of the Laws that govern our game, there is another issue that deserves some thought.

The issue I have in mind is the scheduling and turnaround times between games at the 2019 RWC.

Somehow, somewhere, the issue of unfair or unequal match schedules and rest days has slipped beneath the media’s collective radar. When we take a closer look at the match schedules, we begin to see a definite, perhaps even strange trend.

Rugby is a “collision” sport, a game where human bodies crash into human bodies with massive force. It is a sport of high intensity physical endeavour, coupled to intense mental focus and fortitude. The human body is not designed for such massive collisions, and the mind is not naturally inclined to long periods of intense focus in such combatitive situations.

Both the body and the mind need to be trained, massaged, coaxed, nurtured and forged into becoming the powerful machine a modern professional rugby player needs to be. Once that mind and body has been forged, it must be tempered, much as steel has to be tempered before it will become a good sword. That tempering takes time and careful preparation. 

This World Cup is taking place in Japan, so it is appropriate that we illustrate our argument with something uniquely Japanese. 

Japan is the home of the legendary Katana and Wakizashi swords. Anybody with the vaguest knowledge of the sword making process will tell you that those legendary swords take time and patience to make. They start with handfuls of red iron ore and end up with a beautiful, if deadly sword. Steel is made from that iron ore, a powder that is slowly smelted, heated and hammered, through processes that may take many days before a billet of rough steel is produced. The billet of steel is then forged (heated and hammered) and drawn out in a painstaking process that includes folding the billet and forge welding it over and over again, creating hundreds and then thousands of layers of steel. This process helps remove impurities and even out the carbon content of the steel, making it stronger and stronger.

To cut a long story short, after a laborious, slow, and painstaking process the sword-maker has something that resembles the traditional sword, but it is far from complete. 

Once he has forged the steel, he needs to temper it to make it as hard as possible, to create a steel that can be sharpened to hold an edge that can split an enemy in half, while retaining resilience and suppleness so that it will not shatter when it smashes into another sword.

Once he has carefully tempered that blade, the sword-maker begins to finish the sword, with much careful polishing, grinding, sharpening, and more polishing.

Once that sword is given to the warrior who will wield it in battle, it requires constant care, including regular cleaning, polishing and sharpening, especially after a battle when the edge may have become slightly blunted.

The professional sportsman, the rugby player, is much like that sword. 

It takes a long time and plenty of hard work and effort to forge a quality rugby player that can play the game at the highest levels. He needs careful tempering too, along with polishing and sharpening.

Once he has played a Test match, that rugby player requires a period of cleaning, polishing, re-sharpening……..

Sports Scientists and Sports Medicine Specialists tell us that the rugby player needs a period of recuperation between games. 

Ideally this should be between 14 and 20 days, but in this modern media-driven world that is simply impossible. The television broadcasters want “content” and they want it in frequent, regular doses, and they want as much of it as possible.

Hence we see rugby seasons with many teams, and thus players, required to play a game every weekend. This gives them a period of between 6 and 7 days to recover, recuperate, and regenerate. Or, if you like, to clean the sword, re-polish it, and re-sharpen it.

What has this got to do with Rugby World Cup 2019?

Plenty!

The fixture list and the scheduling of matches at RWC 2019 does not allow for any worthwhile recovery and recuperation for many of the teams.

Not only are many of the teams given insufficient time for recovery and regeneration, but the entire schedule seems to favour certain teams.

As I write this, on the 30thSeptember, 18 games have been played since the RWC kicked off on the 20thof September. 

Most of the teams have completed two fixtures in those 10 days. 

Yet there are a favoured few that have still only played one game. France, the USA, Canada, and New Zealand all still have to play their second game.

The iniquity comes when we look at those latter four teams. New Zealand, the tournament favourites and defending champions were afforded a full 12 days off after their opening fixture against South Africa. They will face Canada on the 2ndOctober for both teams second fixture of the 2019 RWC. 

Canada, one of the real minnows at this tournament, face the best team in World Rugby, just 6 days after their own opening fixture against another Tier One nation, Italy.

Somehow that does not seem fair to me?

The other two teams who still have to play their second fixture are France and the USA. Strange as it may seem, we have the identical anomaly here – the Tier One nation has had 12 days off since their opening fixture on the 21stSeptember, while the Tier Two team, the USA has had just 6 days to recover from their first game, against another Tier One team, England.

Once again, I ask if this is fair? The playing fields do not seem even to me!

We can look at some of the other scheduling that causes me to question the entire fixture list.

South Africa played Namibia on Saturday 28 September, their next fixture is against Italy on Friday the 4thOctober. Six days between games for South Africa. 

Italy’s previous fixture was on the 26thSeptember, so they get 8 days rest. Again, it seems very wrong.

The real issue can be identified when we look at the entire fixture list and establish the turnaround times for each team.

Of the 20 competing teams, 13 have one instance of a three-day turnaround between games: Argentina, England, Fiji, France, Georgia, Italy, NZ, Russia, South Africa, Scotland, Uruguay, USA and Wales. 

Of those 13 teams, eight are tier-one teams. (Notable absences from this list are New Zealand, Australia, Ireland.)

Moving on:-

Three teams have one instance of a four-day turnaround: Canada, Ireland and Samoa. 

Four teams have one instance of eight days: England, Ireland, Russia and Scotland. 

One team has one instance of nine days between games: Wales. 

And two teams have one instance of ten days between games: France and New Zealand.

Here are the total number of rest days each team enjoys:

Number of rest daysTeams
14Canada, South Africa, USA
15Argentina, Fiji, Georgia, Samoa, Uruguay
16Russia
17Australia, England, Ireland, Italy, Wales
18France, NZ, Nambia, Scotland, Tonga
20Japan

One particularly notable issue that needs to be pointed out: South Africa, one of the pre-tournament favourites, gets just 14 rest days during the entire pool game period of RWC 2019. 

Compare this to the 18 rest days afforded the favourites, New Zealand, and the rest of the Tier One nations, who all get 17 or 18 days rest, with the exception of Argentina who get 15 days off.

Now, if I had a tendency to being a conspiracy theorist, I would have all manner of suggestions that I could make.

Yes, organising the Rugby World Cup fixture list is not a task anyone would want to take on voluntarily. It is a logistical nightmare to arrange the venues, the transportation and accommodation of the teams, their practice facilities, and the like. There are, afterall, 20 teams playing 48 matches across 12 venues. 

But there should be some hint of parity in the way teams are treated. There has to be a modicum of fairness, of equality, whether you are the reigning World Champions, or the last qualifier who had to earn the right to be there the hard way.

Things will never be 100% equal, that is a logistical impossibility, but I do think that the teams with the least resources should be given longer rest and recovery periods and should not be treated simply as cannon fodder for the bigger teams to earn bonus points and smash records.

Logic also tells us that it is not difficult to get it right, within the same time frames that govern the current tournament.

Try this: Schedule all games on the final four days of the week, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. 

Have no games on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. 

Then use a rotational system that schedules two games on Thursday, two of Friday, four on Saturday, and two on Sunday. You get the requisite 10 games in a week, and you can ensure at least 6 days between fixtures for every team!

World Rugby have got it wrong, and they need to ensure that it never happens again.

Oh, and back to a conspiracy theory: I do question the way South Africa and Canada, two teams from one Pool, the same Pool in which New Zealand are drawn, get the fewest rest days of them all.

The Weather.

The next issue that needs some discussion is the weather. 

When World Rugby were considering the hosts for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, they must surely have taken a look at the weather conditions expected in the aspirant host countries? Afterall this is the premier rugby competition in the entire world, and it surely has to take place in as close to perfect playing and spectating conditions as possible.

Did they actually consult a meteorologist or two? Or even a geography teacher?

When they selected Japan, did they know that their competition would kick-off during the typhoon season?

Did they wonder whether a typhoon or two might cause a problem with their competition?

As I write this the organisers are keeping a wary eye on Typhoon Mitag, which is bearing down on southwestern Japan, leading organisers to advise that the France-USA match scheduled for Wednesday 2ndOctober might have to be moved from the venue in Fukuoka, on the northern tip of Kyushu island.

(Their most recent missive suggests that the match will go ahead as planned on Wednesday, as they announced on Monday that the typhoon was now “lessening in strength, tracking further westward away from Japan’s coastline and therefore will not impact the match”.

“In line with robust tournament contingency plans, had the match not been able to be played at Fukuoka, an alternative venue would have been used,”the statement added.

At the moment the typhoon is forecast to clip Taiwan and China before moving over the Korean Peninsula and then hitting Japan around October 4 as a much weaker system.

The weather has already caused disruption at the 2019 World Cup when Typhoon Faxai hit Japan less than two weeks before the start, forcing changes to the travel plans of both England and Australia.

Another typhoon, Tapah, clipped the western side of the country on the opening weekend of the tournament, forcing organisers to close down two fan-zones as a precaution.

Japan is hit by around 20 typhoons per year, and the season is not over yet!  

(It is also one of the world’s most seismically active countries, but earthquakes do not follow a specific seasonal pattern.)

If the weather or some other reason were to force the abandoning of a pool match, it would count as a 0-0 draw, which could have a potentially huge impact on the playoffs in this tournament.

These things should surely occupy the minds of the suits who gather to consider the possible hosts for a Rugby World Cup tournament!

The Referees & The High Shots

Uruguay’s superb win over Fiji, the host nation’s Miracle of Shizuoka, and the incredible atmosphere at every ground should be contributing to a memorable Rugby World Cup. The enthusiasm of the Japanese crowds is something really special, and the visiting fans are rapidly falling in love with the Land of the Rising Sun.

There is so much that is positive about the 2019 Rugby World Cup, and yet it is likely to be remembered for the muddled thinking of those responsible for prescribing the Laws and Playing Regulations and their much maligned enforcers, the Match Officials.

From the opening match onwards, it has become clear that the standard of officiating leaves much to be desired.

When Japan’s James Moore put a shoulder to the chin of Vasily Dorofeev, the Russian scrumhalf, the writing started to appear on the wall, if anybody wanted to read it. 

In terms of the current laws and the express instructions issued to the referees, a shoulder to the head without any mitigating factors is an instant red card. Yet referee Nigel Owens, and his assistants Nic Berry and Matthew Carley and theirTMO, Ben Skeen, did absolutely nothing about the incident.James Moore played on. Dorofeev did not.

In the next game of the tournament Australia played Fiji and we saw the “Hodge Incident” as Wallaby Reece Hodge “did a Farrell” on the charging Fijian flanker Peceli Yato, preventing a certain try and ending the flanker’s game with a concussion. Once again the referee and his squad of helpers did nothing. The recipient of the Hodge shoulder, Peceli Yato, was out of the game, and Fiji were denied what was likely to be a memorable win.

Subsequently Hodge was cited and received a 3-week ban for his imitation of Owen Farrell.

In the next game incidents of foul play were ignored, off-the-ball activity went unseen, and all manner of errors and mistakes by players went unmanaged. That game between Argentina and France ended in fisticuffs, and the former were denied what seemed an clear and obvious penalty that would have won them the game in the dying seconds. More refereeing errors and omissions that had an influence on the outcome of the game.

Next was the crunch match between South Africa and New Zealand, with the wayward Jérôme Garcès in charge, ably assisted by his fellow countryman Romain Poite, and the other Assistant Referee Karl Dickson. All manner of illegal play and mistakes were ignored by the match officials in a refereeing performance that drew the ire of the fans, with even impartial observers commenting that Garcès seemed to be enthralled by the All Blacks and turning a blind eye to anything and everything they did. Even an off-the-ball high tackle from behind by All Black captain Kieran Red on Pieter-Steph du Toit went unnoticed and unpunished. That act in itself was worthy of a red card! It was unprovoked assault!

The uproar was so loud and insistent that the suits that occupy the seats reserved for World Rugby executives felt the need to issue a statement, admitting that the standard of officiating was unaccountably poor. Their statement might well have provided some of the more vociferous the opportunity to yell “I told you so!” but it also served to throw the match officials corps under the bus.

Despite World Rugby’s intervention, the spate of controversial decisions and non-decisions has continued unabated.

A couple of days later Samoa play Russia and two incidents occur that are worthy of red cards. In neither instance does the referee reach for his pocket and produce that red card. The Citing Commissioner does, however, take exception and cites Rey Lee-Lo and Motu Matu’u. Both receive a three week ban from the judicial tribunal.

World Rugby’s statement simply had no effect on the refereeing, in fact, it has got worse.

Referees have become unbelievably cautious, referring everything to their TMO for lengthy on-field discussions about every incident. (Discussions about Samu Kerevi’s contact with Rhys Patchell took 5 minutes and 38 seconds while the crowd seethed and the fans at home changed channels to the exciting gardening show next door.)

And then, despite lengthy consultations, the decisions are often ludicrously wrong!

The inconsistency simply ramped up another notch.

Taking matters even further, the judicial officers charged with adjudicating on matters of foul play, have responded to the issue by handing out lengthy bans to those players referred to their jurisdiction and then found guilty as charged. 

Yet, they have also followed the referees’ lead by continuing with the unbelievable inconsistency that does damage to the game’s reputation. 

An example of the inconsistency can be seen when England’s Piers Francis somehow escapes sanction for his high shot on the USA’s Will Hooley from the kick-off on Thursday the 26th. The moment seemed worse than the Hodge incident mentioned earlier, video evidence supports this contention, yet it was treated differently. Somehow, Francis admitted guilt, yet argued that he should have received a yellow card and thus should not have been cited to appear before the judiciary! They accepted his argument and he, and England, get off without any sanction. 

Consistency would have seen him get a three-week rest too!

The inconsistency is highlighted by the fact that USA flanker John Quill was red carded and banned for the rest of the USA’s likely participation in the 2019 RWC as he did an “Owen Farrell” on Owen Farrell himself, clattering into the England man with a needless shoulder charge.

The red card issued to Quill was a 100% correct decision. His shoulder charge was surely unnecessary in any context of the game – Farrell had knocked the ball on and the USA would get the scrum. Quill even had the time to pull out of the collision, but still went through with it. Red it should be, and red it was. 

The only thing you might query was the subsequent three-week ban, given that it appeared to be worse than Reece Hodge’s indiscretion, yet both received the same punishment, as did Rey Lee-Lo and Motu Matu’u. (The sanction guidelines issued by World Rugby say that the minimum is 6-weeks, yet the judicial tribunals have somehow cut that to three. That is a matter for another discussion.)

I did, however, have a moment or two of private mirth at Owen Farrell’s reaction to the incident. He was furious, and continued to unload bile in the direction of the Americans with angry words and gestures, even after Quill had left the field! Seems he does not mind dishing out high shots on opponents, but don’t you dare to do it to him! 

Karma sucks, Mr Farrell.

Turning back to the refereeing inconsistencies:

When Tonga faced Argentina, the islanders had been outplayed by the Argentineans in the first 30 minutes. They bounced back through Telusa Veainu and then created wonderful space out wide for David Halaifonua to charge down the left wing. He looked set to score, when Tomas Lavanini crashed into him and knocked him into touch. 

To anyone watching it was a shoulder charge, pure and simple. Yet referee Jaco Peyper deemed that Lavanini wrapped his arms! 

There can be no doubt that it was a clear shoulder charge. Lavanini’s right arm did move across the Tongan’s body, but only after the lock had led with his left shoulder. 

That should have been a penalty try and, at the very least, a yellow card!

Was this a non-decision by Jaco Peyper, a man who has a reputation for being very quick on the draw with yellow cards? Was he being overly cautious in the light of World Rugby’s critical statement about the match officials?

We move on to Sunday’s clash between Wales and Australia in Tokyo where there were three separate incidents where referee Romain Poite and the TMO Ben Skeen reviewed footage on the big screen.

The first, a very late tackle and very deliberate shoulder charge from Michael Hooper on Wales fly-half Dan Biggar, was penalized and no further sanction ensued. Poite went to great lengths to assure Michael Hooper that it was “only a penalty” yet to many, myself included, the very deliberate, late, shoulder charge was in the very least a yellow card offence. 

Hooper got away with one that deserved more severe sanction.

The situation repeated itself when Wales winger Josh Adams’ arm slid up on Lukhan Salakaia-Loto but avoided the neck or head. This time Hooper was furious at referee Poite’s lack of action, and made it clear to one and all that he was not happy.

In between those incidents was a decision that I still consider ludicrous at best. Rhys Patchell, Wales’ replacement for Dan Biggar, went into a tackle on the hard-running Samu Kerevi in the upright position favoured by many of the northern hemisphere’s flyhalves. He was going to attempt a choke tackle on the bigger man. He got his entire body position entirely wrong and clattered into Kerevi’s arm as the Wallaby did what every rugby player in the world is taught to do instinctively. 

Kerevi was fending Patchell off with his forearm. 

In the moment of contact, Kerevi’s arm connected with Patchell’s chest, and then slid up to make contact in the neck area of the tackler.

Patchell went down like a wet sack, and the whistle went as Romain Poite and his trusty TMO, Ben Skeen, reviewed the situation.

Somehow they decided that he was “leading with his forearm” and thus guilty of an offence.

This has to be a wholly nonsensical decision. I have looked at the incident at least 40 times, including a frame-by-frame slow-motion and stop-motion analysis, and I cannot find any way of saying that Kerevi did anything wrong. The contact with Patchell’s neck was fortuitous and the result of the tackler being in a wholly wrong postion to make a tackle.

Every ball carrier in the game looks to fend off tacklers. Be it with the hand in the face of the desperate cover tackler chasing across to try and catch the winger, be it the forward lowering his shoulder as he carries the ball into contact. Be it with a hip bump or thrust, be it with an arm brushing a would-be tackler aside. 

It is part of the game. 

Law 9.24 says: “A ball-carrier is permitted to hand off an opponent provided excessive force is not used.” – What is “excessive force?”Surely a punch to the face of a tackler is excessive, but not an arm raised to push him off? This was no forearm smash so beloved by the Wrestle-Mania fraternity, this was simply a big centre doing his job!

Somehow Mr Poite and Mr Skeen decided that it was all illegal and penalised Samu Kerevi.

The Aussies were, for once, rightfully furious at the decision.

Somehow the decision even split the fans as some felt that a yellow card was called for. It depended on whom you were supporting. Misguided thinking, I would suggest. As an impartial observer, who was slightly leaning towards Wales, I thought the decision to be utterly wrong.

As an aside: Fans across the world were quick to react to this incident by using social media to circulate a picture of Beauden Barrett with a far more dangerous forearm on Cheslin Kolbe – it clearly makes contact with the South African’s head – that went unpunished and is probably only one of a number of similar incidents that have played out over the opening two weeks of the World Cup.

It is all about consistency!

We can all understand the governing body’s determination to limit the number of potential head injuries that occur in any given game. They have developed a  framework to sanction those that are guilty of high tackles or shoulder charges where contact is made with the head, yet their own referees and their own judiciary are not following their dictates with any consistency.

At the risk of repeating myself – It is all about consistency!

Aussie Toys

Predicting games involving the Wallabies has one certainty. Every game will produce post-match whinges by coach Michael Cheika and on-air spluttering by arch-jingoist Phil Kearns. The Aussies refer to it as a “dummy spit” – the rest of us talk about “throwing their toys out of the cot.”

And so it was, once again, when Australia lost to Wales.

Mr Cheika had much to say about the referee, as usual, and went on to say that he personally “no longer knows the rules.” He was specially irked about the Samu Kerevi penalty. (For once I agree with him that the decision was wrong.)Of course he had nothing at all to say about Michael Hooper’s late shoulder charge.

The intercept try by Wales scrumhalf Gareth Davies did, however, give cause for many complaints.

Serial-whinger and apoplectic splutterer Phil Kearns and a fellow television pundit, ex-Wallaby loose forward Stephen Hoiles, were adamant that it was an offside try.

They blasted  TMO Ben Skeen and referee Romain Poite for not checking to see if Davies was onside before his intercept try, Kearns going as far as to claim he was “two metres in front of his own defensive line”.Kearns went on: “The whole refereeing display has been disgraceful, not only by Romain Poite but by Ben Skeen,” Kearns said on a Fox Sports Australia television panel.

Sorry Kearnsy, once again you are wrong, blinded by those yellow and green sunglasses, adorned by Waratah ribbons, that you wear.

Take a look at the television screenshot of the moment Will Genia has stepped back from the forwards, ball in hand, and preparing to pass. 

Consider what the Law says: 

“Each team has an offside line that runs parallel to the goal line through the hindmost point of any ruck participant,”

On the drawn line, Genia already has the ball in his hands and has stepped away from the ruck, and Davies has only just got one foot across the offside line.

That ruck would have ended moments earlier when “the ball leaves the ruck”as it says in the law book.

There is no way that Davies was offside, and certainly not two meters offside as Kearns would want us to believe.

Phil Kearns, you can download a copy of the Laws from the World Rugby website. It is free!

The Injuries

One aspect of RWC 2019 that is worrying to any rugby fan is the number of injuries to players that have ended their participation in the tournament.

Almost every team already has casualties. The list is already a long one, and it promises to get longer before we even get to the critical knock-out stages of the competition.

It seems to me that rugby has become a war of attrition, and that the 31-player cap on squad numbers is too low. 

Teams need more depth in order to allow for niggly injuries to be rested and treated, rather than forcing players back onto the field of combat carrying that injury and placing them at risk of a tournament-ending aggravation.

I am not sure what can or should be done about the problem, but it is a very real issue.

And that, dear friends, is my bundle for this week’s comments.