IRB must act to prevent repeat of farce
March 14, 2011
Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll attempts to query the decision with referee Jonathan Kaplan © Getty Images
Drama and excitement often help us to forget the Six Nations' shortcomings but controversy is not such a welcome bedfellow, especially if it is self-inflicted.
As a result it is a crying shame that the shocking mistake by the officials at the Millennium Stadium has hogged the headlines on a weekend when Italy's historic victory over France in Rome and Brian O'Driscoll's record-equalling exploits deserve to take centre stage.
For once the official at the centre of the storm was not the referee but his assistant, Peter Allan. His nightmare should not only result in his temporary demotion from the panel but should also prompt immediate action from the International Rugby Board to ensure such a farce does not play out again.
Rugby is happy to gloat when football conspires to score an own goal with its reluctance to embrace video technology, but they will be the ones pointing and laughing. Ireland should have won this game and the manner in which Wales kept their title hopes alive should deem the contest null and void.
How the officials managed to make a mess of this one is a mystery and in the words of Ireland skipper Brian O'Driscoll their action - or lack of it - was "unforgivable". Ireland's Jonathan Sexton may have made a mess of his clearance but it clearly sailed into the crowd. Moments later a ball boy hands a different ball to Wales hooker Matthew Rees and his quick lineout finds scrum-half Mike Phillips, who races away down the touchline to notch a crucial score. Cue jubilation from the Welsh and consternation from the visitors.
But all was not lost. There was hope this clear injustice could be rectified when referee Jonathan Kaplan approached Allan. "It is the correct ball?" asked Kaplan having been bombarded with allegations to the contrary by incensed Irishmen. Allan's reply? "Yes it is." Oh dear.
Not only was it a different ball but the well-intentioned cameo from the ball boy means that the quick lineout was illegal on two fronts. Quite simply they got it wrong, badly wrong. Law 19.2 (d) of the Laws of the Game states: "For a quick throw-in, the player must use the ball that went into touch. A quick throw-in is not permitted if another person has touched the ball apart from the player throwing it in and an opponent who carried it into touch."
Allan must shoulder much of the blame for error and will no doubt pay for his blunder. Who knows why he gave Kaplan the answer he did, as such conviction could not have come from watching the events the rest of us witnessed. Did the pressure get to him? Did he fear censure? Clearly.
Kaplan may claim to have been looking in-field but he does not escape blame. The officials are a team but the management of the game ultimately rests with the referee. It's not been a great couple of weeks for the South African who is widely regarded as one of the best if not the No.1 whistle blower in the game.
Last month he gifted the Rebels a dubious penalty that Danny Cipriani slotted to give his side a narrow 25-24 victory over the Brumbies in their Super Rugby clash in Melbourne - a decision that SANZAR referees boss Lyndon Bray later admitted was wrong. Kaplan can expect another awkward conversation with IRB referee manager Paddy O'Brien when he decides to return his call.
We all make mistakes and as in any walk of life the real crime is if you do not learn from them. On this occasion the onus is on the IRB to act. Kaplan's hands were tied to a certain extent by current regulations that mean he can only call on video assistance to help with in-goal decisions or kicks at goal. But such an option would not have been utilised at the Millennium Stadium due to Allan's unwavering conviction. It is unclear what Kaplan would have done had Allan admitted he was not sure as he wouldn't have been able to go upstairs.
It is a shame that the Television Match Official, Geoff Warren, did not speak up as he will have surely seen the error that had been made. Such a move may have been beyond his strict remit but who would have cried foul considering the situation? A dangerous precedent maybe but surely better than ridicule?
There is maybe a case for broadening the responsibilities of the fourth official beyond the regulation of the replacements but again you would have to leave it to the referee to call on his services for clarification, or rely on that individual to raise a flag like his counterparts on the touchline. At best that would be a clunky addition to the technicalities of the game so perhaps the answer lies with the current TMO set-up? Rugby, both league and union, has pioneered the use of video technology and they could raise the bar further by allowing the referee to call on replays at any stage of the game.
It remains to be seen whether the IRB has the courage to go down that path so close to a World Cup, when they traditionally leave the laws of the game well alone. If they do not act they run the risk of their showpiece event being soiled by a repeat of these events in a high-profile game with the eyes of the world upon them.
The IRB will no doubt deliver a strongly worded reminder to all their officials but this latest high-profile error should lead to a more significant change. O'Brien is a known supporter of wider use of technology and has previously pushed for change. Ideally he would like to see referees given the chance to review the build-up to a try but has failed in his attempts to gain the support of the IRB Council, while a promising trial in the Currie Cup in 2008, which also incorporated suspected foul play, did not lead to further experiments.
O'Brien's case will be stronger for this latest incident but it is perhaps worth remembering that technology will not always provide a definitive answer. In most cases we could expect decisions to controversy-free. That safety net is surely better than accepting the chance of repeat.
Allan and Kaplan can take comfort from the fact there is a way back - just look at Wayne Barnes who now commands much respect a few years on from New Zealand's controversial exit at the 2007 Rugby World Cup - an episode that also engulfed Kaplan, who was an assistant on that day.
To their credit, Ireland are refusing to dwell on the issue with coach Declan Kidney pointing to the real tragedy unfolding in Japan. And you cannot begrudge Wales a little luck in the Championship having been on the wrong end of bad officiating themselves with English referee Chris White the guilty party in Rome four years ago. But Ireland's decision to roll with the punches should not detract from the fact that the IRB needs to act or risk becoming a laughing stock.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.