But ref ...

2011-10-15 00:00

SO here we are, just starting to get over the haunting memory of the 2007 Super Rugby final at King’s Park, and Bryce Lawrence pops up to provide us with a fresh sporting nightmare.

Every couple of years it happens and a South African cricket or rugby team contrives to turn imminent glory into numbing disaster, murdering innocent sleep in the process.

There was that rain fiasco in the Cricket World Cup semi-final in Sydney in 1992 when an attainable target of 22 runs off 13 deliveries against England suddenly became 22 off one ball.

And then in 1999 a panicky Allan Donald was foolishly run out with South Africa needing just a single to beat Australia in the semi-finals of the World Cup in England. It was not a good year, and four months later Wallaby flyhalf Steve Larkham kicked a freak (for him) drop in extra time and the Springboks lost in the semi-final of the Rugby World Cup at Twickenham.

Sharks supporters have their own bank of nightmares, with the 2007 Super 14 final in Durban the most vivid. Frans Steyn missed an easy last-minute conversion to seal the title, but the Sharks were still ahead by six points at the final hooter when the New Zealand referee and his assistant ignored a series of transgressions at the final ruck and Bulls wing Bryan Habana scooted through for the winning try.

And now we have the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and Lawrence, a New Zealand referee, has launched another thousand sleepless nights.

It was, in a way, horribly predictable. Lawrence had made a pig’s ear of controlling the Sharks’ Super Rugby play-off against the Crusaders at the end of June and John Smit would have shuddered at his appointment for the quarter-final.

But the alarm bells would have sounded throughout the camp on the eve of the game when a contrite Lawrence suddenly conceded he had made several wrong penalty calls against the Wallabies in their 15-6 loss to Ireland in a Pool C game. (Lawrence awarded 21 penalties to Ireland and 12 to Australia in that game).

One can but wonder what impact that feeling of guilt had on his handling of the quarter-final. Former All Black captain Taine Randell had no doubt it did.

“He was scared to make a decision,” said Randell, adding that just as referees can spoil a game with too much whistle so they can destroy a contest by failing to blow the laws.

The Boks’ strategy was obviously based on playing a territory game to bring the match-winning boot of Morné Steyn into play. The Springboks had 80% territory in the second half in Wellington and applied all the pressure, while the Wallabies, in spite of constantly going off their feet at the ruck and a blatant late tackle in the closing minutes, were penalised just once in their own half (and Steyn kicked that penalty).

The New Zealand referee was reluctant to make any tough calls. It was a dereliction of duty, and even the match-winning penalty awarded against lock Danie Rossouw came not from Lawrence, but from the assistant referee (touch judge).

Of course the South Africans, with their domination, should have taken the referee out of the equation by scoring tries, but the Boks’ argument is that their attack was often illegally blunted at the breakdown. The Wallabies (led by the remarkable David Pocock) were regularly able to slow up the South Africans’ possession at the tackle. Without quick ruck ball the Boks’ attack lacked momentum. allowing the Australians to scramble back and reorganise their defences.

Meanwhile, conspiracy theorists, paging back through history, are having a field day. Lawrence is the son of New Zealand referee manager Keith Lawrence, who was in hot water back in 1999 after one of his e-mails went astray. Lawrence senior was reprimanded — and had to apologise to his South African counterpart, Freek Burger — after he sent a note to his Australian partner in which they agreed “to teach the Japies (South Africans) a lesson.”

But enough of the New Zealand family Lawrence.

New Zealanders will surely now be mightily relieved the Japies have gone home. Instead of having to play a Springbok team who were dominant in Wellington, a team with a robust pack, an organised defence and apparently peaking at the right time, the All Blacks are up against the Wallabies, who were brave but badly outgunned in the quarters.

On the playing front a number of Springboks returned from RWC with their heads high. The combative but underplayed Bismarck du Plessis and Francois Hougaard, along with Pat Lambie and Frans Steyn, were the Boks’ young stars of the RWC, but a number of veterans — among them Victor Matfield, who was a commanding presence at the lineout, uncompromising flank Schalk Burger and centre Jean de Villiers — again underlined their talent in the quarter-final.

Heinrich Brüssow, who had his quarter-final prematurely ended by a cynical shoulder charge by Wallaby Dan Vickerman at a ruck, had an otherwise excellent RWC.

The arguments will rumble on over whether John Smit and Bryan Habana should have started ahead of Bismarck du Plessis and Hougaard. And had the Boks known that referee Lawrence would leave the law book in the changeroom, flyhalf Butch James’s ability on attack would have been more valuable than Steyn’s kicking game.

But in the end the players’ hard work and heroics were overshadowed by refereeing controversy. New Zealand’s Paddy O’Brien, the International Rugby Board’s head of refereeing — and, incidentally, a close friend of Keith Lawrence — told reporters ahead of the tournament that no World Cup game had ever been decided by a referee.

While O‘Brien should now be choking on his words, South Africans are having to find ways of dealing with their own recurring flashbacks.

How much easier it is to cope with a decisive beating rather than this lingering, hollow feeling of what might have been.

Time for the old sleeping pill …

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