Sir Graham Henry's view on the All Blacks' quarter-final defeat at the 2007 Rugby World Cup deserves to be treated seriously, even though it may be tempting to dismiss it as sour grapes or a selling ploy for his latest book. He has remained silent since that day in Cardiff, to the extent of winning an international fair-play trophy for his "exemplary attitude". But, obviously, like most New Zealand rugby followers, he felt aggrieved about the circumstances of the shock loss to France. Having coached the All Blacks to victory in last year's World Cup, he judges this is the appropriate time and his book the appropriate vehicle to air that view.
As it happens, Sir Graham was deeply affected by the result. He says that he was physically sick after reviewing a video of the match in his hotel room. In his opinion, the English referee Wayne Barnes had missed as many as 40 penalties. If that sounds excessive, it is certainly true that the All Blacks were not awarded one penalty in the final 60 minutes of the encounter, even though they spent most of that time in possession and on attack. So unsettled was Sir Graham by this that he asked the New Zealand Rugby Union and the International Rugby Board if there was any system to look at "bizarre games".
Sir Graham's concern was far from unique. Several other critiques of the game found it very unusual that the All Blacks had not been awarded penalties. An independent review for the rugby union noted that "the performance of the referee and touch judges had a significant impact on the All Blacks' prospects of success". Aside from a 10-2 penalty count against New Zealand, a forward pass during the move that led to a French try was missed. The IRB's referee assessor and its referee manager both conceded that Barnes had made mistakes, notably in French offsides late in the game that should have been penalised.
Sir Graham's search for an explanation for all this leads him to suggest, without a shred of evidence, that match-fixing might have been involved. At that point, he goes too far. Just what is he saying? Losing teams usually conspire to lose where rigging is involved. Rugby, more than most games, is influenced by the referee. So complex are its rules that errors can be found virtually anywhere a referee chooses to look. Unsurprisingly, therefore, refereeing controversies are part of the game.
Take last year's World Cup. South Africans are still irate about Bryce Lawrence's officiating in the quarter-final against Australia. The Welsh remain angry that their captain, Sam Warburton, was sent off by Alain Rolland during the semi-final against France.
And the French believe that Craig Joubert fell victim to home-country advantage in taking a lax approach towards the All Blacks in the final.
All, arguably, have some cause for their discontent. But Sir Graham's claim of match-fixing casts doubt on whether they were also victims of malpractice. The reality is almost certainly far more mundane. Referees have their off-days. Barnes seems to have more than most. His inadequacies were demonstrated again last year and he was shut out of the business end of the World Cup.
The refereeing was not, of course, the only reason for the All Blacks' worst World Cup performance. A wretched run of injuries, not least to Dan Carter and Nick Evans, poor selections, preparation and on-field decision-making also contributed.
But all this would probably not have mattered if the refereeing in Cardiff had been competent.
Sir Graham is entitled to air his view on how unsatisfactory he considered that to be. But not to go beyond the pale - and into the truly bizarre - by linking one of a multitude of examples of poor refereeing to match-fixing.
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