Gregor Paul on rugby

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Do refs side with All Blacks?

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Former England international Stuart Barnes says referees are intimidated by the All Blacks. Is he correct? Herald on Sunday rugby editor Gregor Paul says only half the time.

Referee Romain Poite sends Bismarck du Plessis from the field. Photo / Greg Bowker
Referee Romain Poite sends Bismarck du Plessis from the field. Photo / Greg Bowker

He's a smart cookie Stuart Barnes, the former England first-five and now media commentator. He's always insightful, measured and analytical and in his recent decree that the All Blacks are currently earning undue favour from referees, he's right. But only up to a point and not in the way he portrays either.

No question that Bismarck du Plessis could have hammered any other All Black than Dan Carter and not been yellow carded. His crime was to pick on the wrong bloke and the entirely legal was immediately adjudged by Romain Poite to be illegal.

It was a poor call from the French referee, but not one that in itself should be extrapolated as evidence he unduly unfavoured the All Blacks throughout the game.

There were five turnover penalties in the second half against the All Blacks. That's not to say South Africa weren't excellent over the ball, but in the lottery which is the breakdown, a referee bent on helping the All Blacks could have found fault with how the Boks were operating.

This debate has perhaps been blown out of perspective by one clanger of a mistake by Poite. The initial yellow card only became the drama it did because du Plessis then followed it up with an idiotic and dangerous forearm smash. Barnes' contention that this would normally be ruled okay in one of five games is hopefully codswallop. Rugby is in serious trouble if it is now okay for players to lead with their forearms and crack them into windpipes, jaws and other breakable structures. It's not, and the awful justification that rugby is a man's game is ironically right: real men don't do that. Du Plessis is the world's best hooker. He was having a belter of a game at Eden Park but he gave Poite no choice.

Those who want to believe in a wider conspiracy should wait for the return test at Ellis Park where it's inevitable the Boks will get a better deal from the officials. That's not because they are owed it based on what happened in Auckland, but because in all probability, at Ellis Park, they will be able to put the All Blacks under colossal pressure and win the judgements that pressure will deserve.

That's how it has always been: referees tend to be influenced by the flow of the game and given the desire the Boks will have, the advantage of home ground, their obvious set piece excellence and muscularity - they will most likely be in charge for long periods and win the benefit of any doubt.

There's a fair chance they will also win the game and if they do, everyone should accept it's because they were the better team on the day. The danger otherwise, as Barnes is suggesting, is that all victories should be attributed to favourable refereeing rather than the skill and endeavour of the players.

That's kind of what the All Blacks are facing at the moment: every time they win, there are allegations that they cheat and get away with it or the ref copped out and went soft on them.

The facts are a little different. Since winning the World Cup, the All Blacks have picked up eight yellow cards while their opponents have collectively gathered nine and one red.

And what about the game in Brisbane last year: no sanction for Scott Higginbotham's knee to Richie McCaw's face until after the game? Dean Greyling got yellow when everyone, even the Boks, said it should have been red.

Why didn't the IRB investigate Aurelien Rougerie's eye-gouging in the World Cup final?

Why did the chief executive of the IRB intervene in the Adam Thomson case and no other - giving an immediate opinion to taint the judicial process?

Go further back and it's no different. Andy Powell nearly decapitated McCaw in Cardiff 2009 and nothing. In the same game Carter commits a high tackle that started at the shoulders and rode up and yet is banned for one week - after the chief executive of the IRB demanded he be cited.

There is no conspiracy - referees just make mistakes and the judicial process is a farce that impacts on everyone. The only plus of Poite's error is that it has heightened the tension and expectation of the re-match - a test that, regardless of outcome, has to be a celebration of a great rivalry where the victor is given due credit for what they achieve.

- Herald on Sunday

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