We all know South Africa is ruining rugby, except, apparently, the one person who can do something about it. By Greg Bruce.
Like every lover of rugby, I hated watching last weekend's desecration of the game by the worst team to ever take the field. Yes, Japan in 1995 and Namibia in 2011 were very bad, but at least their primary aim wasn't to eliminate all rugby from a game of rugby.
Throughout the game, I railed near-constantly at the Springboks: Get him off the field! How long does it take to clean up some blood? How long does it take to tie your boots? Throw the ball in! Feed the scrum! etc
I didn't mind their box kick-based game plan, and I quite like their halfback and strategic centrepiece, Faf de Klerk, although not as much as South Africa's coaches, and for different reasons, mainly to do with his hair. But their time-wasting, I cannot tolerate.
The Springboks, as we all know, have been cheating for years: Food poisoning, eye-gouging, ear-biting, Louis Luyt's gift of a gold watch to a referee at the 1995 World Cup. The IRB even changed the rules to allow lineout lifting in the 1990s because the South Africans refused to stop doing it. Now I think about it, the eye-gouging might have been Richard Loe and I'm not totally sure about the lineout lifting. Anyway, these are side issues: cheating the opposition of victory is one thing; cheating spectators of a full game of rugby is another.
I'm not the first to notice the time-wasting. Every writer in New Zealand not already busy addressing John Key's strangely incoherent rantings has been assigned to cover it, helped by the fact All Black prop Joe Moody, in a post-game interview, gave us the year's greatest sporting quote: "Just about every stoppage, someone was going down and having a smoko."
The problem goes back much further than last weekend, of course. In August, the British and Irish Lions played a 63-minute half against the Springboks, after which coach Warren Gatland accused them of having an injury at every scrum. In 2014, Kieran Read raged about it after a test in Wellington during which both he and Richie McCaw fruitlessly attempted to get the referee to do something about it. In 2006, Graham Henry said it wasn't just the Springboks but also the South African Super Rugby teams.
In other words, we've been suffering through this crap for at least 15 years - or, as South African coaches think of it, the ideal length for a game of rugby. Why have rugby referees been the only ones unable to figure out what the rest of us have long been sick of?
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
I asked Paul Bracewell - whose PhD was in rugby statistics and who now runs a prominent data analysis company - if he could provide evidence that might help this weekend's referee Matthew Carley see the extent of the problem.
Because rugby statistics don't yet include a measure for time-wasting, Bracewell suggested a good proxy might be to measure the elapsed time of South Africa's games: When a player goes down with an injury, the game clock stops. Therefore, the more fake injuries a team has, the longer their games should take.
The reason science sucks and we all hate it is because it's inconvenient. When Bracewell crunched the numbers on this year's Rugby Championship and emailed me the resulting spreadsheet, I was shocked to see the Springboks had played exactly the same number of minutes across their five games as the All Blacks - 490. In even more surprising news, both Australia and Argentina had played more.
The reason science is so great is that, unlike a game of rugby involving South Africa, it never stands still. Paul Bracewell, seemingly as surprised by the numbers as I was, suggested a better proxy measure might be the number of rucks in a game. That's because the clock doesn't always stop when the game does - it keeps running, for instance, when players walk slowly to lineouts, then have long-winded meetings "about where to throw", or when they lie around before scrums, having pretend cramps and repeatedly retying their shoelaces, because they're anaerobic monsters, purpose-built to be unable to run more than 60 seconds without a lie-down. Bracewell's point was that, while such delays don't extend the game time, they do limit the time available for rucks.
The truth will set us - and hopefully tonight's referee Matthew Carley - free of South Africa's nonsense. When Bracewell crunched the numbers, it turned out that, of the five games with the fewest rucks in this year's Rugby Championship, the Springboks played in four of them. The only non-Springboks game in the top five was when the All Blacks beat Australia 57-22 in a match featuring so many tries there was no time left for rucks.
It felt good to see those numbers, because they are scientific evidence of what I, Moody, McCaw, Read, Henry and all rugby fans already knew: South Africa's only chance of winning a game of rugby against any half-decent opposition is to eliminate, as much as possible, the possibility of rugby.
But this article isn't intended for you, me and everyone who's ever played or watched the Springboks. It's intended for tonight's referee Matthew Carley, whose name now appears thrice in this article - and who we all, for the good of the game, must hope is a frequent and experienced user of Google news alerts.