A close contest always leaves teams feeling regretful; of what might have been and all the ‘if only’s and it is inevitable in such a tight game as was contested on Sunday morning for the Web Ellis Trophy that the decisions of the referee would come under close scrutiny.
South African Craig Joubert was given the nod ahead of French-speaking Irishman Alain Rolland (who refereed the 2007 final), who was line judge for the same game.
Overall, Joubert seems to have just about passed the test in terms of being fair-handed in a brutally physical close-combat match in a highly-charge home-town atmosphere and in a country whose very existence ached for the long-awaited World Cup victory that would confirm the All Blacks’ dominance in the sport.
But there were some mistakes that were noticeable to home viewers with the benefit of multi-angle cameras and slow-motion replays. For example, at least one – and possibly two – crooked line-out throws from the All-Blacks went unnoticed by the officials in the first half. Uncharacteristically, the New Zealand line-out was poor while the French one functioned to quasi-perfection.
In a post-match press conference, national French coach Marc Lièvremont was asked about the refereeing decisions and the part they might have played in the final result: “I met Craig Joubert two days ago,” he said a few minutes after the final whistle, “and I told him that I thought he was the best referee in the world, that the pressure on his shoulders must have been extremely strong. But I also said that every man can make a mistake and I gave a commitment to him that I would not criticise his refereeing, no matter what happened.”
The players, however, gave no such commitment and were still in a bitter mood about the referee’s influence on the game as they exited the dressing rooms:
“We never got that penalty that we were expecting. The referee didn’t want to give it to us, even though there were two or three rucks where he could have blown the whistle,” said Dimitri Yachvilli. Maxime Mermoz went even further: “I got a punch right in the ear from Weepu. I couldn’t hear anything, and even now I can’t hear properly. And the referee didn’t blow the whistle.” Pascal Papé, meanwhile, spoke of a “two-tier” system of refereeing at Eden Park.
Dimitri Szarzewski was even more vocal in his criticism of the refereeing: “Kaino committed a load of fouls, McCaw did whatever he wanted and they weren’t penalised. Unless the foul was particularly bad, they weren’t sanctioned. Mr Joubert was not brave. This was a World Cup Final. All I wanted was that things would be fair and equitable. And that was not the case.
“It’s really annoying because everyone wanted New Zealand to win, so people will have not problem with that. All of ‘planet rugby’ was against us and it was logical that we would lose. Important players that I would have a lot of respect for like Pienaar, Tindall or Cueto openly criticised us. New Zealand is the best team in the world for the last eight years and it’s good that they’re champions of the world tonight, but they didn’t deserve to win.”
Very often in sport, it’s not the best team that wins – something that Welsh might have felt in the aftermath of their defeat to France in the semi-final or arguably what the South Africans might have felt after their quarter-final defeat to Australia. Fabien Barcella summed up his feelings in a more philosophical manner: “Even though we feel like we robbed, that’s all part of the game.”