When Australia loses a rugby match, it is generally put down to some external factor like refereeing. This is the response of both the so-called experts and the coach, Michael Cheika, whose middle name should be “whinging”.
Thus when Wales beat Australia in a pool game in the Rugby World Cup last week, a match that is very likely to decide the winner of that pool and condemn Australia to meet England in the quarter-finals, the reaction was no different.
Cheika is helped in his whinging by the former players who act as “experts” on telecasts of the game. The coach complained about a penalty awarded against centre Samu Kerevi by French referee Romain Poite when the Australian forward’s forearm slid up to touch the throat of Welsh standoff Dan Bigger.
Complaining that he no longer knew what the rules were, Cheika kept quiet about the fact that all coaches had been advised before the start of the tournament that any hits to the head region, intentional or accidental, would be strongly penalised.
The bodies that govern all contact sports are wary of lawsuits from concussion-related injuries after the NFL had to pay out billions to players. World rugby does not have that kind of money to dish out; hence, the caution is understandable.
Perhaps Cheika was frustrated by his selections for the match; he brought in Bernard Foley and Nic White as standoff and scrum-half respectively, after a lack-lustre performance by Christian Lealiifano and Will Genia in those roles in the first pool game. Both Foley and Genia played poorly.
Cheika should have, instead, played Matt Toomua in the role of playmaker after he had put on a strong showing against Fiji when he came on in the second half. Toomua added some much-needed sharpness to the attack against Wales too, but by then it was too late.
Some commentators also mumbled about the intercept try that Welsh scrum-half Gareth Davies scored, but this complaint had no basis. A look at the match video shows Davies clearly onside at the moment when Genia flung the pass. In fact, Genia took so many steps before passing that only a blind man would have been unable to judge his intentions.
In the first game, Cheika whinged about the penalty handed out to winger Reece Hodge, for a tackle on Fijian flanker Peceli Yato. It left the big islander concussed and he was unable to play any further part in the game. Until that point, Yato had been Fiji’s best player by a mile.
Hodge escaped any penalty during the game but was cited and then banned for three games by the disciplinary panel.
Australia fails to recognise that by constantly complaining referees, they are annoying the officials no end. Cheika could learn a lesson or two from New Zealand coach Steve Hansen.
In 2017, when the British and Irish Lions toured New Zealand, French referee Jérôme Garcès sent off centre Sonny Bill Williams during the second Test. The Kiwis had won the first Test, and as a result of playing with 14 men, New Zealand were beaten in the second game.
In the third game, a tight one, where Poite was the referee, the scores were level 15-all with a few minutes left to play when a high ball bounced off a Lions player directly into the hands of replacement hooker Ken Owens.
Owens caught the ball and then, realising he was offside, quickly threw it away.
Poite awarded New Zealand a penalty in a position from which fly-half Beauden Barrett could have easily converted it. But then Garcès stepped up to him, and the two men conversed in French for a while.
After that Poite said, “we will make a deal”, claimed it was an “accidental offside” and awarded New Zealand a scrum. This resulted in the game ending in a draw, which meant the series was drawn 1-1.
Hansen did not complain a great deal about this, only saying: “Romain’s instinct was it was a penalty. If he had gone with his instincts he would have made the right decision. But he got caught up in over-thinking it. I bet he is not feeling good about that.
“He is a good man, Romain. He hasn’t done it deliberately. You just have to accept it, as much as it can be frustrating and annoying. It is part of sport.”
Cheika would do well to learn from that example.