Rugby World Cup Stuff

Of Conspiracies, Refs, Laws, Race & Whingers, 

I am not quite sure where to start with this week’s comments about the Rugby World Cup?

So much to say, so much to talk about, yet so little time before the next game kicks off.

Let’s begin with Conspiracy Theories. 

One hoary old chestnut that sticks its ugly head above the horizon every four years is the one about the All Blacks having been deliberately poisoned before the Rugby World Cup final back in 1995.

Lo and behold, it is 2019, and the story has resurfaced in the New Zealand media!

As the Springbok captain in that famous final, Francois Pienaar, has said, claims the All Blacks were deliberately food poisoned in the build-up to the 1995 World Cup final will forever live on despite no evidence to prove them.

Once again, we are reminded that members of the All Black playing and off-field staff adamantly believing the team was deliberately poisoned by some mysterious woman called Suzie.

Pienaar is on record as saying: “I’m just saying that if these people were poisoned and then can go into extra time and play at that level and at that pace then it’s quite impressive.”

There can be no doubt that some kind of bug got into the All Blacks food or drink back in 19915, TV footage of star winger Jeff Wilson vomiting on the sidelines during the final have been played over and over again.

Rory Steyn, the South African security consultant who was contracted to look after the ’95 All Blacks said: “It looked like something out of Saving Private Ryan. There were guys lying on the floor outside the doctor’s room down the passage, and him [the doctor] and the physio and the medic were administering electrolytes and injections”.

I do find that statement interesting, but only because the movie Saving Private Ryan was only released in 1998, three years after the incident Rory Steyn is referring to.

Of course, Rory Steyn is adamant that the team was poisoned, although the side’s manager – the late Sir Colin Meads – believed the culprit had been off milk.

Meads was one of the squad’s sickest members and revealed he had drunk a large amount of milk as part of a bid to recover from a big night out with managers from other World Cup teams.

He said in 2008 that after drinking several “big glasses” of milk he began to feel unwell.

The other niggling question that might be cause for some conversation: How good was the security provided by Rory Steyn and his team, if the team could be deliberately poisoned? Afterall, they ate in a private dining room and were protected by a contingent of security guards. Did someone slip up, or was it just some milk that was a little off?

The next Conspiracy Theoryhas hogged the headlines since Friday.

Did the Italians deliberately lose their two tightheads in order to draw the sting out of the Springbok scrum?

Is this a new tactic devised by the canny Conor O’Shea, in the same way that he nullified the English forward power in the rucks of the first half of a Test back in 2017?

I have said my piece about the issue in my post-match review, so I will not rant again here, but I will say that World Rugby needs a very serious look at the Laws and the effect that such manipulation of the Laws has on the game.

Perhaps Nick Mallett’s suggestion that the team that is the cause of the uncontested scrums must be penalised by withdrawing one of their players has some merit? If you do not want to scrum, or cannot scrum, it must not be to the detriment of your opponents, thus you need to sacrifice a player and finish the game with 14 men?

(Of course, the Italians may well then have finished the game with 13 men, or even 12 if Wayne Barnes had red-carded Quiglio as well as Lovotti………..)

The High Shot and the Lawmakers

When the powers that be in World Rugby decide to change one of the Laws of the game, they usually go through an exhaustive Law Trial period, testing and massaging the change until they are happy with the outcome, rewrite the law, or they dump the proposed change.

In years past, thanks in the main to the influence of that Grand Old Man of Rugby, Dr Danie Craven, most of the Law Trials were conducted in the Stellenbosch University Internal Rugby Leagues – the competitions where residences and faculties played against it other.

More recently, many of the Law Trials are run over in Australia, being tested and refined in the Australian National Rugby Championship. 

Many of the Trial Laws have become permanent, the use of the TMO, the value of a try going up to 5 points, lifting in the lineouts, et al.

These Law Trials have included many ideas that have not made it through to the mainstream of rugby, be it the concept of two referees on the field, the variable values of a try depending on what area of the field the build-up to the try has started, the 50/20 kick, or the current idea that a ball held up over the tryline no longer results in an attacking scrum on the 5m mark but results in a drop-out from the goal line.

This is a good system – formulate the change you are looking for, and then test it. Test it to destruction of you can, but test it, refine it, and test it again.

Why then, have the authorities, World Rugby and their misbegotten referees, decided to use the Rugby World Cup as a testbed for their new focus on head contact?

How could they impose a new directive and focus on the high tackle without testing it in the lower leagues, even at Super Rugby and Premiership levels before issuing instructions to the RWC referees to focus on the issue?

Yes, the problem of high hits and contact with the head is critically important and deserves very serious thought and action.

But why at the World Cup? 

The premier event in an already niche sport?

Did they think about the effect their imposition would have on the game, and even on the competition itself?

Are they hell-bent on destroying the game they are supposed to be nurturing and protecting?

Let’s take a quick look at the history books.

In 1999 and 1995 the RWC set an unenviable record – no less than four red cards were dished out at those tournaments. (The Battle of Boet Erasmus between the Springboks and the Canadians contributed most of those red cards.)

These two tournaments surpassed those of  1987, 1991, 2007, and 2011 each of which saw just two red cards shown; whilst there was just one in 2015; and none in 2003.

When Nigel Owens showed Argentinean lock Tomas Lavanini the red card early on in their loss to England at the Rugby World Cup on Saturday, he made sure that the 2019 tournament entered the record books.

That was the fifth red card in 25 matches to that point, pushing the 2019 World Cup into the record books as the “dirtiest” on record.

And it is not over yet! There are still 22 matches to be played and, based on their track record so far, the referees are going to be handing out a whole bunch more before the 2019 Rugby World Cup is over!

The problem is that the referees, obviously under instructions from some faceless administrators, seem to be waiting to pounce on the merest hint of a highish tackle, or even a fend, as we saw in the incident that involved Samu Kerevi and Rhys Patchett, and have been unbelievably quick to reach for the pocket and brandish a card.

It seems not to matter that the contact with the head was accidental or deliberate, the card is coming out of the pocket with an alacrity we wish the referees would show in enforcing some of the other Laws of the game, such as the offside at the ruck or the scrum put-in.

With Tomas Lavanini’s 4-week ban, he has become the eighth player to be suspended at the 2019 Rugby World Cup for dangerous tackles, the subject of a major crackdown by governing body World Rugby.

As mentioned, there have been five red cards along with 17 yellow cards at this World Cup; the highest number since the first one kicked off in 1987. (Players have also been suspended following citing by the Match Commissioner, for example Wallaby Hodge and Italian Quiglio.)

Have no doubt that the that the issue of contact with the head and neck is critically important. It needs to be properly policed, but with moderation in mind too. 

Handing out red cards and multiple yellow cards has the effect of forcing an uneven contest on the game, and that is never a good thing. In fact it has ruined a number of the games at this very World Cup.

Add in the necessity for consistency.

How is it possible for Lavanini to get a red, Reece Hodge just a yellow, yet England’s Piers Francis was only penalised, and then cited afterwards, yet somehow escaped sanction for his high shot on the USA’s Will Hooley from the kick-off on Thursday the 26th. Francis’ hit was easily in the same league as that by Lavanini, why did he get away with it?

Why has New Zealand’s Kieran Read escaped any sanction whatsoever for his plethora of off-the-ball incidents and high hits? There was a no-arms hit 20 minutes into the game against minnows Canada. This incident was less than half a meter from the referee Romain Poite, and directly in his line of sight – in fact the ref was lucky Read did not make contact with him! How did he miss it? Why did an Assistant Referee have to call the incident, and why was nothing done about it. 

Where was the Citing Commissioner in the 36 hours after the game? 

How did Read sidestep a citing for a from-behind off-the-ball clothesline arm smash to the head and neck of Pieter-Steph du Toit?

How does he get away with so many off-the-ball shoves and shoulder charges?

In the same game where Read got away with his indiscretions, two All Blacks were actually shown yellow cards. All Black props Nepo Laulala and Ofa Tuungafasi were sent to the sinbin, after Laulala hammered Namibian wing Lesley Kim in the 31st minute of the match, while Tuungafasi walloped Darryl de la Harpe in the 73rd minute. 

The only reason Laulala and Tuungafasi escaped red cards is because Kim and de la Harpe were, according to the referee, “falling in the tackle” when they were fouled.

I question those calls, simply because we have seen red cards shown for less at this current World Cup!

All we ask if for consistency from the referees, and, for heaven’s sake, equal treatment for all the teams and players at the tournament!

If I may illustrate some of the unequal treatment I have noted: 

Moments after Lavanini was sent off, Manu Tuilagi made contact with Emiliano Boffelli in the air. Tuilagi was penalised, but this seemed like a slap on the wrist. Even ex-England coach Sir Clive Woodward said on ITV that “It’s a definite yellow card. No-one from England can be complaining if he’s got one. If the Argentina player comes down on his head, you’re looking at real problems.”

Yet again, in the same game that saw Lavanini sent off, how did a no-arms-tackle by Kyle Sinckler not attract heavier sanction from Mr Owens? That incident was not even sent upstairs to the TMO for a review. It was card-worthy, based on the marker laid down by the referees this year.

How on earth did one incident get the heaviest sanction available on the field of play and others get nothing.

Let me add that Mr Owens was not favouring England with his decisions. Pablo Matera was lucky not to get a serious dressing down and a possible card for a late hit on Ben Youngs. It was not just late, it was almost historically late. And it triggered a melee of sorts as the handbags came out.

However, let there also be no doubt, the departure of Lavanini ended the game as a contest.

There were yet more examples of the referees’ inconsistency during the past week. Samoan flanker TJ Ioane was yellow-carded for a late tackle on Japan winger Kotaro Matsushima early in the first half with the scores close at 9-6. In slow motion it was certainly a late tackle, but when replayed at regular speed it was an almost instantaneous tackle as the winger juggled the ball. Most referees would call “Play On!” and say it as simply part of the game. Not Jaco Peyper. He immediately referred the late shot to the TMO, watched in in hyper-slow motion a couple of times, and then issued Samoa’s fifth yellow card of the tournament following the incident.

This was not a high tackle, simply a marginally late tackle, nowhere near as deliberate as the one Michael Hooper got away with a week earlier, which also featured a no-arms shoulder, yet Ioane’s tackle was deemed worthy of a yellow card?

To make matters worse, Japan’s James Moore went unpunished for a shoulder to the head of Tim Nanai-Williams. Contact that saw the Samoan leave the field with concussion. Moore was penalised, but no card. The second time in two weeks that Moore has gotten away with high hits! (In the opening round he took out Russian scrumhalf Vasily Dorofeev in much the same way.) 

Sadly, the referees, together with the faceless individuals who make the Laws and dictate their imposition and application, seem hell-bent on ruining the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

The constant discussions between referees and their TMOs are robbing the game of the flow and excitement so desperately needed, while the over-officious application of the high-tackle Law and the rapidity with which cards are meted out are in danger of killing the tournament as a spectacle. 

The real danger still lies in the 22 remaining games. 

A referee or TMO decision could well knock a team out of the tournament, with no comeback even if the referee’s decision is proven to be wholly faulty!

There is something wrong with that.

Accusations of Racism

South Africa, the fabled Rainbow Nation, is heavily populated with individuals who seek out the vaguest hint of “racism” or an imagined “racist” incident and then climb on the social media bandwagon to trumpet their righteous indignation, politically correct fury, and personal displeasure as they mount their high horses  and point fingers with happy abandon and scant regard for the truth.

Even when the truth is told by those involved, there are those that then happily deny that it is the truth, and serve up their own personal interpretation of that “truth” – they seek to make political mileage, no matter what the reality of the situation.

After the South Africa/Italy game after a video clip surfaced on social media that appeared to show Springbok Makazole Mapimpi frozen out of a group huddle by white teammates.

Mapimpi himself quickly clarified the incident, insisting that he was walking away from the group, because he was not a member of “the bomb squad”, the name given to South Africa’s matchday replacements at this tournament, with the wing saying: “There is nothing wrong. We are one.”

Rassie Erasmus, a man who has managed to build the most transformed and racially inclusive Springbok squad in history, said those who rushed to condemn his side on Social media misunderstood a “standing joke”within the squad that saw the starting XV and matchday replacements split into different groups.

“Everybody who has been part of a touring side or a Springbok side knows that in a squad of 31, there are guys who make the 23 and the eight guys outside the 23 are called the ‘dirt-trackers’,”Erasmus explained.

“Then you get the starting XV and then you get the reserves.

The reserves are dubbed “the bomb squad”because they either have to fix things on the pitch or “it’s a false alarm and they are not even going onto the park.”

“It’s a kind of standing joke in the team,”said the coach.

That explanation was not good enough for a radio show host, one Eusebius McKaiser on Radio 702, who said the he personally is not convinced by the explanations.

He said “When one sees a video like that with a group of players in the Springboks team that on the face of it do not want to huddle the black player and they are all white, it is perfectly rational for a South African who is fluent in our racist history, including the racism in the sport of rugby, to formulate an initial view that says this demonstrates precisely what is problematic about race and rugby in our country.”

He went on to add “It is still rational for earlier when that video went viral for everyone to have been dismayed. The rationality of the initial reaction is not undermined when you find out there is some quirky rule.”

He then made his own wild assumption: “Unless Mapimpi joined the squad yesterday, why was he disappointed? Why was his body language indicative of someone who had been excluded? Are you saying this guy found out the rule after he was upset?”

Now I am not sure what MrMcKaiser’s goal or role is in questioning both the player and the coach’s explanations, other than to perhaps create dissension?

While the Bomb Squad issue was being debated, the alleged “Eben Etzebeth” incident in my home village of Langebaan has also continued to draw all manner of opinion and comment from a wide variety of individuals, commentators, media hacks, and the keyboard warriors of social media.

There are those that have decided that he is guilty, and should immediately withdraw/be sent home from Japan. There are others that suggest that he should be suspended until the truth has been established. Yet others suggest that he should apologise, pay compensation, and then get on with life.

I, for one, cannot understand the suggestions that we abandon one of the very basic principles of our democracy – that one is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Somehow many are forgetting that a rumour or an accusation does not automatically indicate guilt. 

Only hard evidence, presented in court, tested and retested, argued, and then considered by a suitably qualified judge or magistrate can provide a verdict of guilt.

I live in Langebaan, the Jewel of the West Coast of South Africa. I am perhaps physically closest to the actual incident that many seek to speculate and pontificate on.

Yet, I was not there when the so-called incident occurred. 

Thus I have no idea what actually happened. 

I have consulted widely amongst my fellow inhabitants of this village, and one and all are equally unaware of the facts! Everyone has an opinion, but nobody actually knows! You see, they were not there!

I reserve judgement until the entire issue is brought before a competent authority, where the accusations and counter-accusations can be tested.

Until that day comes, I would suggest that the media hacks, the keyboard warriors, the political activists, and the righteously indignant keep their views to themselves.

Above all, remember that basic legal principle: Innocent Until Proven Guilty!

Allow justice to take its course.

Y’all have a good week.