Loose Pass: The issue with tinkering, contentious try call and Johnny Sexton’s suspension

Lawrence Nolan
Aaron Smith, Cheslin Kolbe and Johnny Sexton.

Aaron Smith, Cheslin Kolbe and Johnny Sexton.

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with tinkering problems, contentious try decisions and convenient punishments…

The perils of rotation

As if to prove a point about the merits and demerits of ‘keeping players fresh’ for big games by resting them for other games, Loose Pass is thoroughly convinced that despite New Zealand’s palpable brilliance, South Africa looked very off at times during Saturday’s opening quarter.

It’s not just the hiatus in match practice either. It’s the aspect of separation. It was a week in which half the squad prepared for a game while the advance party of 13 trained, and doubtless were professional about it, but missed out on the togetherness, preparative minutiae and intensity that the squad training for the Australia match would have got.

Then the squad that arrived had to deal with the jet lag as well; it’s conceivable that even after the squad had been reunited in Auckland, they’d not have been as ‘together’ as the could have been until Wednesday or Thursday. It very clearly showed: it took a good 20 minutes for South Africa to even get a run of phases together.

The irony, of course, is that the ‘half-baked’ team Eddie Jones said he didn’t want to face was actually the one that started the game in Auckland. And given there are bigger prizes on offer this year than winning half a Rugby Championship, the risk was probably one that Rassie Erasmus, full of credit at the bank, was happy to take. Certainly once they had woken up, the match was between two equal teams.

But given the examples of Leinster at the end of the season and now South Africa, contrasted with that of Munster’s endless travails as they scrapped their way to the URC title, the conclusion seems obvious: separating and rotating a squad doesn’t only keep players fresh, it also disrupts their rhythm. One to consider for teams at the forthcoming World Cup…

Tries that were(n’t)

Despite New Zealand’s obvious early superiority, a momentum-halting opportunity was strangely called back for a knock-on, and it’s one worth diving into.

New Zealand were on the horizon and galloping fast by the time Cheslin Kolbe jumped in the air with Beauden Barrett. The ball came loose and even at real speed it seemed Kolbe had touched it down.

When Loose Pass watched the replays in slow motion, the doubt in mind was that perhaps Kolbe had knocked on in the act of challenging for the ball. Barrett clearly claims the ball in the air initially, but the contact with Kolbe’s hand as he challenged dislodged it from Barrett’s grasp. The ball goes forward from that point of contact. The players land on the ground then Kolbe is quickest to get his had on it. The slow-motion replay quite clearly shows Kolbe’s hand go down on the ball, shows hand, ball and grass all touching at the same time.

Rugby law 11 regarding knock-ons does not address challenging in the air for a high ball directly. But 11.2 is probably the closest, saying 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.

Infuriatingly, the highlights available on media currently exclude this entire episode, but we’re pretty sure Kolbe contacted the ball when he challenged before Barrett dropped it, and extending the above definition to challenges in the air, he does knock it on. So the correct outcome.

Yet the decision to focus on the grounding staggered. Law 21.1.b says a try is scored by pressing down on it with a hand or hands, arm or arms, or the front of the player’s body from waist to neck. Not one clause there talks about control. So all that needs to happen is for hand, ball and ground to all be touching at the same time, a moment for which the replay was even frozen with Kolbe’s hand, ball and grass all in perfect harmony.

The correct outcome, we think, but not the correct call to disallow the try for the grounding – and Loose Pass is getting pretty tired of the inconsistency here; it really is time to define in more minute detail for TMOs what a grounding needs to be.

Similar controversy over in Australia too, where Argentina’s winning try was hotly-contested by several Aussie fans – although Eddie Jones chose to let it go quite succinctly.

The debate here surrounded whether the TMO should have been consulted. Jaco Peyper was in a customary position behind the ruck as Juan Martin Gonzalez leapt over the ruck and it would have been impossible to see what happened initially, just as it was impossible to tell from the TMO angle whether a part of the ball had touched the grass. On the balance of probability, we think it did.

But here we’d opt to commend Mr. Peyper for backing his instincts and experience. A TMO wrangle here could have generated all sorts of bitterness – certainly had Mr. Peyper asked for a ‘try or no try’ opinion. There are times when we don’t need the TMO. And when we do, it’d be nice if we knew what set of laws or directives they were working from.

A slap on the wrist is just fine, is it?

There was a creeping expectation that Johnny Sexton would find his way out of his disciplinary hearing with his retirement World Cup aspirations intact, but even with the previous examples of suspensions being conveniently tailored, this one took the biscuit.

See, he was found guilty on every count. Aggression, misconduct, foul language, abuse towards officials, bringing the sport into disrepute, it was all there. Sexton even admitted it. And he wasn’t even playing: there’s far less recourse to ‘heat of the moment’ pleas when you are up in the stands.

What message does this send? This is a player looked up and idolised to by vast numbers of youngsters, yet he has quite clearly and publicly soiled one of the few remaining advantages rugby enjoys over other sports: namely that we’re respectful of referees.

Now we’re still respectful of referees, but even if we’re not, we get to enjoy the big occasions anyway. Sexton should have had to miss a bigger game for this transgression.

READ MORE: ‘It could have been a lot worse’ – Ireland legend on Johnny Sexton suspension