Super Rugby

Semifinals Review

Even with neutral referees, Super Rugby did not manage a weekend without some officiating controversy!!!!

Hurricanes fans are bewailing a refereeing decision by Nic Berry, who called a knock on by TJ Perenara when replays suggest that Sam Whitelock might have knocked the ball from Perenara’s grasp.

With just two minutes left on the clock, the Hurricanes launch a string of desperate attacks on the Crusader’s line, they can still win this game! But the referee’s ruling put an end to their hopes. 

Perenara himself believes Nic Berry botched the call in those dying seconds of the semifinal. A deflated Perenara said the ‘Canes should have been awarded a penalty. Instead the Crusaders were rewarded with a scrum feed inside their own quarter, before clearing for touch on the fulltime hooter to win the game.

If the Hurricanes had been awarded a penalty they would have had one last chance to attempt to score a try to claim a victory and advance to the final.

“We know it’s a penalty,”Perenara said. “The ref can’t see everything. He makes a call, and calls it a knock on.

Hurricanes coach John Plumtree agreed with Perenara.

My own view, at the moment that the incident happened, was that Whitelock was onside, he had come through and over the middle of the ruck, the ball was out of the ruck, and he had the right to play the ball. Whether he knocked the ball on, or whether he “ripped” it from TJ’s hands is moot. Some referees will call it a knock on by the player who was stripped of the ball. Others might have awarded the scrum to the ‘Canes as Whitelock also appeared to knock the ball on.

Hindsight, and the benefit of multiple relays might suggest otherwise – perhaps it was illegal, perhaps not. I have my opinion, others will have theirs.

From a totally different perspective, the incident demonstrates so much of what is wrong with the game of rugby and the Laws as they are written and/or interpreted at the moment. The offside line at the ruck is already a contentious issue, and needs to be addressed sooner rather than later as it is a major factor in the degradation of the game from an open, exciting, running game to an arm-wrestling match of hundreds of consecutive rucks.

As I mentioned in a different conversation about the incident, the Laws are subject to all manner of different interpretation. 

If the ball is out of ruck, past the hindmost player, then the ruck is over and, as long as a player is on his feet, and is coming to the ball from an onside position, he can play the ball.

Similarly, the instant the scrumhalf picks the ball off the ground at the base of a ruck, the offside line disappears and the ball is in general play. At that very moment the opponent can tackle the scrumhalf, unless he was already offside before that moment.

It is a matter of instant decision by both player and referee.

The question was then asked “is knocking the ball out of a player’s hand not a penalty offence?”

Ripping the ball in the tackle has become the default option in almost every tackle today. Ripping can be defined as having hands on the ball and ripping, or it can be defined as forcing the ball from the grasp of the carrier. Which is correct?

If we look at the written Laws, we find no clarity on the above issues – Law 9.4 might hint at the moment :

  • A player must not intentionally prevent an opponent from having the opportunity to play the ball, other than by competing for possession. 

However, this paragraph appears under the section dealing with Obstruction, so is it relevant at the ruck?

Law 9.23 does say that you may not kick the ball from another player’s grasp.

Law 10.11.b. says that an offside player may be penalised if that player interferes with the play or moves towards the ball. (I do not believe that this Law applies here as Sam Whitelock was not offside.)

Law 11, then? The Knock On?

KNOCK-ON 

  1. A knock-on may occur anywhere in the playing area. 
  2. It is a knock-on when a player, in tackling or attempting to tackle an opponent, makes contact with the ball and the ball goes forward. Sanction: Scrum (if the ball goes into touch, the non-offending team may opt instead for a quick-throw or lineout). 
  3. A player must not intentionally knock the ball forward with hand or arm. Sanction:Penalty. 
  4. It is not an intentional knock-on if, in the act of trying to catch the ball, the player knocks on provided that there was a reasonable expectation that the player could gain possession. 
  5. The ball is not knocked-on, and play continues, if: A player knocks the ball forward immediately after an opponent has kicked it 

(charge down). 

  • A player rips or knocks the ball from an opponent and the ball goes forward from the opponent’s hand or arm. 

The only bit that I would suggest applies is Law 11.5.b – Which then suggests that the referee erred in ruling that it was a knock on by Perenara?

The final Law that needs consideration is Law 15. The Ruck.

The relevant bit is:

ENDING A RUCK 

  1. When the ball has been clearly won by a team at the ruck, and is available to be played, the referee calls “use it”, after which the ball must be played away from the ruck within five seconds. Sanction:Scrum. 
  2. 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. 
  3. The ruck ends when the ball becomes unplayable. If the referee decides that the ball will probably not emerge within a reasonable time, a scrum is awarded. 

Once again, there is no absolute clarity provided by the written Laws! The written word says nothing about the scrumhalf picking the ball up at the base of the ruck!

The question must then be asked – “When Whitelock played the ball, was it out of the ruck?”

I believe it was.

We can go one step further in attempting to find some clarity in the Laws, and consult the Law Clarifications issued by World Rugby’s Rugby Committee.

Back in November 2006 the Rugby Committee issued Law Clarification 8 of 2006, which refers directly to the Ruck.

The French Rugby Federation has requested clarity on a number of issues, including the following:

4. Can the referee allow a player coming from his side to hit the arm of the 
opponent as this opponent has the ball in his hands, by staying on his feet but being in contact with players on the ground in front of him?

The Response from the Rugby Committee was:

4. Yes. If the player was on his feet and came from an onside position.

Now if we read all the legalese and gobbledy-gook produced by World Rugby, the only clarity we have dates back to 2006. Sam Whitelock was allowed to play the arm of TJ Perenara, if he was on his feet and came from an onside position.

Which takes me back to Saturday’s game. 

Was Whitelock offsides? No. 

Was he allowed to play the ball? I would say Yes! 

Could he play the ball in TJ’s hands? I would again suggest that the answer is “Yes!”

Did the referee make a mistake? 

Yes! It was not a knock on by Perenara and play should have continued, or he should have called Whitelock’s fumble a “knock-on” and awarded the scrum to the Hurricanes!.

Of course, that is simply my reading of the written Laws and the Law clarifications issued by Word Rugby. I do not have access to the referees’ briefings and their interpretations of the Laws, which seem to change on a match-by-match basis anyway.

The real point is, that the game is over, the Crusaders won it, and they progress to the final. The Hurricanes’ fans can cry some tears, but their season is over. Period.

About the two games:

Crusaders vs Hurricanes.

Wow, what a great game of rugby! This was as close to Test Match intensity as it gets without a national anthem or two before the game kicks off.
As hard as the Hurricanes tried, and they really did try hard, the Crusaders showed just how hard they would fight to avoid being beaten on their home turf.

When the final analysis is done, the teams will know that it was simply a lack of discipline that ultimately cost the Hurricanes the game, they conceded more than twice as many penalties as the Crusaders. Crucially, two of those penalties resulted in points from the boot of Richie Mo’unga.

The stats tell us that the Crusaders carried the ball more than the Hurricanes in the first half, forcing the Hurricanes into making far more tackles. However, the ‘Canes had the better of the game on the ground – with 12 turnovers taken off the Crusaders in the first half. The second half stats are almost identical.

In the second half the game opened up and both sides played superbly fluid, attacking rugby, the kind of stuff the fans and television viewers of the world want to see.

The game was in the balance right until the very end, even after a late penalty 

gave the Crusaders the opportunity to push their lead out to four points, which forced the ‘Canes to go for a try to win the game. 

It was a great game of rugby.

Made more so by the clash between New Zealand’s premier flyhalves, the King and the Crown Prince. Beauden Barrett against Richie Mo’unga.

This confrontation took an already big match and transformed it into an unforgettable spectacle.

The knock-out phases of any competition often produce low-risk win-at-all-costs rugby, dour, dry and tense without the excitement and flair that can elevate a game to any great spectacle.

Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett elevated this semifinal to the status of instant classic.

When the ‘Canes were 13-7 down at halftime Beauden Barrett decided to change the way he was playing this game, and abandoned the conservative approach of the first half, launching his Hurricanes into a game of all-out attack that was full of enthusiasm and, dare I say it, fun!

He is good enough to make that kind of change in his approach, and make it work!

Backed by his long-term scrumhalf partner TJ Perenara, Barrett took the game by the scruff of its neck and started to carry the ball into the Crusaders, looking for holes and creating chances all around him. There was an increased intensity, a crystal clear focus, and superlative carrying, kicking and passing. It was quality stuff, and vintage Barrett –

The elevation of his game triggered an immediate response from Richie Mo’unga, who stepped up his own game to match that of his opponent.

For every piece of quality play provided by Barrett, Mo’unga had a response, and vice versa. Both seemed to light a fire under their respective backlines, yet they did it with a cool composure that suggested that they were simply going about their normal business.

If this was normal business, woe betide the rest of the world when the All Blacks start to defend their World Champion status! 

Small wonder the smile on Steve Hansen’s face as he sat on the sidelines watching.

It was an enthralling encounter, inside an enthralling game! In the end, the two flyhalves probably finished on equal terms.

The Jaguares vs the Brumbies

This too, was an entertaining fixture, but in a wholly different way to that of the New Zealand derby.

The Brumbies arrived in Buenos Aires on a wave of expectation. Their season had gone well, and their demolition of the Sharks in their quarterfinal was a tactical masterclass as well as an illustration of how far the Brumbies have come as a team in 2019. They had a game plan that was based on a reliable and solid set piece. They were playing well as a team, with the units within the team functioning like a well-oiled machine. They arrived in Buenos Aires with one goal in mind. They were there to win. 

Many pundits picked them to win.

Those pundits were ignoring the Jaguares form, and the quality of the rugby they play. 

Of course, in the weeks prior to this semifinal there had been a couple of Aussie commentators who had thrown a bit of fuel on the fire by suggesting that the Jaguares were not really a Super Rugby team, and that they were an international team masquerading as a Super Rugby team, and thus should not be in the competition.

Sour Grapes? Certainly as far as Mr Motormouth Phil “Jingo” Kearns is concerned. Afterall, the Jaguares had beaten his wonderful Waratahs….

The reality is that they are the only Super Rugby franchise based in the Argentine, the only professional rugby team in that country, and it is not unexpected that they would field many of the best that the Argentine has to offer. That is the nature of the beast. If those players did not represent the Jaguares, they could well be lost to Argentinean rugby and to Super Rugby – and both would be the poorer for it!

Yes, 14 of the 15 Jaguares starting XV were Argentine international players and there are 1135 Test caps in their squad.

But take a quick look at their opponents. The Brumbies had 11 Wallabies in their side! 

Cross over to New Zealand, and the Crusaders had 11 All Blacks and a Wallaby, while the Hurricanes had 11 All Blacks.

All four teams contesting the semis were loaded with international players!

This makes a nonsense of the argument that the Jaguares should not be playing Super Rugby. 

Back to the game: 

The Brumbies arrived with the intention of winning. However, their plans and their intentions got absolutely ruined by the Jaguares right throughout the game. 

One could see the Jaguares, focussed, purposeful, and disciplined, going about a serious job of work, and the Brumbies getting more and more unsettled by the single-minded focus of the Jaguares.

The Jaguares played simple, straightforward rugby, without bells and whistles, but with real focus. They ramped up the pressure by keeping things simple.

When the pressure was on, the Brumbies went missing in action.

The expectation that the Brumbies would dominate the set-pieces did not materialise, and it seemed that they were flustered by the fact that the Jaguares were actually contesting in both the scrums and lineouts.

The Jaguares stepped up to the mark, playing with controlled aggression, great organization, and focussed intent. The looked like a well-drilled, polished outfit, and they were not going to let the Brumbies fluster them.

As we look ahead to the final in Christchurch, I would suggest that the Crusaders will be doing some very serious thinking about what awaits them when the Jaguares come calling. Jaguares have something about them that says that they are genuine threat, even in Christchurch. 

Not much more to add – I am looking forward to an interesting final.