Loose Pass: Endless accusations of bias and a welcome milestone in Super Rugby

Lawrence Nolan
Loose Pass on the endless accusations of bias and the happiness of Nuku’alofa.

Loose Pass on the endless accusations of bias and the happiness of Nuku’alofa.

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the endless accusations of bias and the happiness of Nuku’alofa…

Give it a rest

I mean, we’re not stupid. We all played, and around half of the time, whenever we lost, it was clearly the referee’s fault. Clearly.

Nothing to do with the dropped passes, nothing to do with the appalling lack of fitness or the sub-optimal diet the night before. Nothing, either, to do with the clear lack of latent talent. Definitely the referee. Or maybe the crooked linesman. Or maybe the host side slipped some Valium into the half-time oranges. The bus driver was paid off by the opposition because his brother got a black eye when playing against us the day before his wedding last year and so the driver infused the aircon on the bus with sleeping draught.

There’s an excellent old school book, almost certainly out of print now but just as almost certainly to be found in any good quality second-hand bookshop (and it can be found on Amazon too), written by Michael Green and entitled ‘The Art of Coarse Rugby’. It might well be over 50 years old. It’s a frankly hilarious read about how, at lower rugby reaches, a little gentle conspiracy can give you a decisive advantage. Giving slightly duff directions to the opposition so they turn up late. Puncturing balls when you look as though you are losing so the game needs to be abandoned. Letting the opposition know before the game that you’re taking up a whip-round before the match for an opponent in the previous match who had both his legs broken by a particularly vicious tackle by one of your players. And, of course, treating the referee like royalty and making sure he’s your best mate for a suitable amount of time. And so on.

Why all this intro? Well, there was little else we could think about reasonably over the past couple of weeks. Karl Dickson didn’t give a yellow card to his ‘old mate’ Danny Care. Former Quins man turned referee robs Northampton. How can you give him such a crucial game when he’s got all his old boy affiliations? The worm turned on the Quins fans alright when Romain Ntamack hit Andre Esterhuizen on the high side late in the game and just when Quins were hitting the straps on a comeback. Conspiracy theorists focused hard on the TV director who chose to replay the incident only once (he did replay it one time), but not on the TMO, who surely could not have failed to see the hit when it happened (seismologists registered it) nor have not been looking out for the replay. It’s easier to focus on the TV director you see. He’s French. So he’s biased. Same as Dickson, or is that something different then?

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It’s desperately poor from a large number of observers that from two matches featuring 137 points and 20 tries, much of the post-match has centred on one referee decision and one piece of TV direction. Not Tyrone Green’s sumptuous running lines and offloads. Not Care’s astonishing athleticism and fitness. Not Northampton‘s refusal, ever, to be beaten (also on show this weekend). Not Toulouse’s strategic intelligence at targeting Harlequins‘ pared-down rucks or Toulouse’s breathless offloading game.

Rugby is in pretty good shape at the moment on the pitch. We have high-quality tries all over the show, with pitches and stadia improving, players of extraordinary skill and athleticism giving us week after week of entertainment. We’ve just had two outstanding Champions Cup semi-finals – four, really. The past Six Nations was a cracker, as was the past World Cup.

The media is absolutely partly to blame, but there are prominent analysts who should know better than to infer that Dickson reached for his card, then dropped it again when Care gave him ‘the sign of the Quin’ or whatever he did to get him off the hook from his ‘old mate’. There was a lot more to talk about in Toulouse than just to wonder whether a TV director was trying to hide evidence; perhaps the TMO just thought ‘nothing to see here’? Maybe he used to be a member at Wasps or something. Who knows. Who cares? Just enjoy the rugby.

For example…

The elements did their best, but nothing was going to rain on the parade in Nuku’alofa. Super Rugby has had a tough time of reinventing itself since the pandemic, but this season’s edition has quietly become really rather good.

Tonga‘s first Super Rugby game marked another milestone for integrating more Pacific Island nations and players into the southern hemisphere showcase competition, another milestone in a direction which, frankly, the competition would have done well to turn towards years ago.

But despite the weather, the rugby was good, the fans were loud and the occasion looked to be fun. Certainly everybody was talking about the rugby after it, and not making too much about the fact that Ben O’Keeffe was refereeing the Highlanders despite having spent five of his most important formative years studying in Otago. Because it matters about as much as Dickson once having played for Harlequins.

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