Saturday, October 20, 2007

What do we do to deserve these refs?

To the pub in the next village to watch the world cup final. Ours would probably have soccer on and about three people watching. I predicted about a year ago that South Africa would win, thinking then that England would be nowhere and not foreseeing how we would help them by eliminating Australia. That evening, with both Wallabies and All Blacks going out to less fancied sides, will remain one of the sporting godsends of my life.

I have no England shirt so wear a short sleeved red one above a long sleeved white one – the message should be clear. Can’t decide whether to sit in the posh bar with the hooray Henries or the public one with the real people but there is a seat in the posh one so that decides it. Everyone stands for a rousing rendition of the national anthem. I find myself next to a girl in an England shirt with a boyfriend in a South African one. He knows all the rules and evidently has remarkable eyesight – every England infringement instantly spotted and explained. In the interval I ask him where he is from. ‘Pritoria, South Ifrica’, he says. The South Africa part I had guessed.

The first half is close, England trailing because of a couple of silly penalties. At the start of the second we make a super break and score near the left hand corner, a good yard in from touch. A conversion would give us the lead 10-9 and anything could happen. Then the Franco-Irish ref, inappropriately English-French bilingual on this occasion, decides to refer it to the television official. This is an overworked option that should be resisted. It was clearly a try that should have been awarded without hesitation and would have been until the new technology came in. The television official now has the job of trying to find a reason not to award it because either a) he would be out of a job if he gave it or b) the endless replays that would follow and that might suggest he should have denied it would discredit him. There was nothing in the replays that proved Cueto was in touch before the ball was grounded. It was morally a try whatever the technicalities and should never have been referred. This is slavery to the technology. It happens because tacklers seem to have been trained to try to drag the try scorer’s feet into touch as an easier option than tackling him properly. If this goes on wingers will have to be trained to raise their feet as they dive for the line, and if they catch the tackler in the face, so much the better.

I find myself with a depressing sense of déjà vu. In 2003 we had to contend with a ref who kept finding reasons to drag a clearly winning side back with strange calls for scrum infringements against a scrum that were clearly on top. I have heard allegations that he was on a bonus, presumably from the television company, to extend the game into extra time and an even bigger one to take it to a penalty shoot-out. Now we have to contend with a man who had not the moral courage to take a big decision in a close game.

On then to the end and a 15-10 win for South Africa that will go down in the books as 15-6. I have no complaint with the result and am proud that England made it to the final and erased the memory of the 36-0 whitewash. We gave them a good game, lineouts apart, and made them work for it and should be able to go on from there. The team should get the same reception on coming home as they did in 2003, though they will presumably arrive on a French train instead of a BA jumbo. The whole tournament was a huge success, with a side beaten in the pool games reaching the final for the first time and Argentina for me the team of the tournament. The only bad taste is New Zealand apparently trying to renege on the deal to hold a 20 nation tournament in 2011 and reduce it to 16. If they persist with that it should be taken away from them and given to Japan.

So to the presentations and for some reason my evening was most spoiled by the sight of our prime minister in the lineup of dignitaries congratulating the teams. He probably thought it was Britain that had lost.

A quick no-hard-feelings chat with the South African supporter and then I spotted his girlfriend taking off her England shirt to reveal a Springbok one underneath. Ann Boleyn was beheaded for less.

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