The All Blacks, cynicism and the problem with ‘refereeing bias’

Rarely has a week gone by in this year’s international rugby calendar without a controversy relating to the All Blacks. Over the course of the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup, we saw Steve Hansen and his team accused of disrespect by Michael Cheika after a cartoon mocking the Australian coach appeared in an Auckland newspaper; Owen Franks’ contact with the face of Kane Douglas in a maul go unpunished; TJ Perenara’s try against South Africa at Ellis Park awarded despite questions over correct grounding; and an Australian try harshly ruled out for obstruction by Nigel Owens at Eden Park. Last weekend’s test match in Dublin was compelling in its physicality, but the treatment of two reckless tackles from Sam Cane and Malakai Fekitoa has led once more to furore over World Rugby’s disciplinary process.

It does not take long to generate such an uproar in the age of social media: footage of Owen Franks’ alleged eye gouge was circulating on Twitter moments after the action occurred on field, while – during the aforementioned Eden Park test – in the space of half an hour journalist Brendan Gallagher had moved from tweeting his forceful admiration that Nigel Owens was ‘not being intimidated’ by the All Blacks (after penalising New Zealand consistently for offside in the first half) to righteous indignation that the Welshman was yet another official ostensibly under Steve Hansen’s thumb. Particularly disappointing in the aftermath of the Dublin test was the insinuation by a couple of leading Irish rugby journalists that the professional judgement and integrity of the fixture’s appointed citing commissioner (affiliated to Rugby Canada, but Kiwi-born) ought to be questioned, with no evidence for his apparent complicity other than his place of birth.

Other common tropes – such as caricaturing and calling bullshit on the All Blacks’ ‘culture’, and denouncing New Zealand Rugby for robbing the Pacific Islands of swathes of rugby talent – are manifestly unfair and inaccurate, but these accusations stick because of the lazy perceptions inculcated and perpetuated by a number of British journalists, Gallagher and Stephen Jones chief among them. The result of such an environment is that patently inaccurate statistics such as the All Blacks’ penalty to yellow card ratio and images such as that of Brodie Retallick’s knees near Sean O’Brien’s head can be shared with little regard for their provenance or context, implicit condemnation of the ‘Black cheats’ and World Rugby’s evident double standards.

How, then, to try and establish the reality behind this portrayal? In terms of the All Blacks’ team culture, while its monetisation and branding has clearly made it an easy target for ridicule, there can be no doubt that it has underpinned one of the most impressive high performance environments in professional sport. In terms of allegations of foul play and cynicism, the reckless past actions of Tana Umaga & Keven Mealamu and the patent thuggery of the likes of Andrew Hore have clearly – and rightly – left a sour taste, while the approach of some current All Blacks to the contact area (Dane Coles, Owen Franks and Sam Cane in particular) often strays slightly over the boundaries of acceptability. However, their performance environment has enabled them to develop a broad range of skills to a world-class level, and it is likely that one of these which they have perfected is the application of selective infringement at the breakdown and elsewhere. It may be panned as ‘cynical’, but in truth there is no professional rugby team in the world which does not look to push the boundaries in this regard – and Ireland in particular excel at it (cf. CJ Stander’s role in Conor Murray’s try in Chicago, and the approach of Schmidt’s teams to occupying space beyond the rucks). Professional sport is about exploiting inefficiencies, and one such inefficiency is the gap between how the game is legislated and how it is refereed; the All Blacks have developed a reputation for impunity in this area which is a legacy of Richie McCaw and his ‘cloak of invisibility’, but in truth they are likely just more ruthless and consistent in their exploitation of this than other sides.

To return to Saturday’s game, the context of the Cane and Fekitoa tackles was such that they did not necessarily appear indicative of an intentionally reckless and dangerous approach to the tackle area by the New Zealand side. Rather, the sheer physicality with which they came out at the Aviva was an obvious response from a team which had been physically dominated in their last meeting with the opposition (as Gordon D’Arcy suggested in his piece for the Irish Times). Physical dominance in rugby is currently, for better or for worse, communicated most clearly through tackles above the waist – either in ‘man and ball’ hits or in the initiation of high contact in order to hold the ball off the ground, another part of the game in which Ireland do so well. Other tackles over which the Dublin crowd cried foul during the game were largely attempts to scrag an elusive ball-carrier around the shoulders and neck, which are much more difficult to premeditate than the late shoulders we would expect to see as part of an approach to intimidate and ‘send a message’.

In response to accusations of officiating bias towards New Zealand, it could be argued that the sheer number of mistakes and controversies which occur in games not involving the All Blacks makes it difficult to infer a clear pro-Kiwi agenda: there is no context of consistently strong refereeing performance from which the way in which they are treated represents a deviation. In addition, New Zealand play the game in a fashion that likely gives rise to more potentially controversial incidents: for example, their attacking style brings with it the increased likelihood of ‘forward passes’, and their approach to the breakdown – as discussed above – potential penalties for deliberate infringement. Meanwhile, events such as the contentious awarding of Conor Murray’s first try in the 2013 test match vs. New Zealand and Aaron Smith’s incorrect yellow card in the first half last weekend are often conveniently forgotten in this narrative. As with most conspiracy theories, the façade of a rugby world biased towards the All Blacks likely obscures a more complex reality. In this case, genuine issues such as the consistent on- and off-field disciplinary processes and a workable approach to player welfare predominate, and the clearest message from this test match and its aftermath is the need for global and national bodies to work coherently towards these goals.

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