Australia’s tactics for World Cup rugby fraught with danger

AUSTRALIA enters next month’s World Cup rugby union tournament as one of the teams in with a chance — at least, based on the personnel and the strengths of the other teams involved.

But the Australian coach, New Zealander Robbie Deans, is resorting to a gameplan that has been tried before — when he was the understudy to John Mitchell, the coach for the All Blacks at the 2003 Cup. And Mitchell’s tactics failed that time.

In 2003, the Auckland Blues won the super rugby title. Mitchell based his national team for the cup on four players from the Blues – mercurial stand-off Carlos Spencer, wingers Doug Howlett and Josevata Rokocoko, and full-back Malili Muliaina.
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When sports bodies dictate the agenda…

RUGBY matches telecast in New Zealand on Sky TV are made highly watchable by the two commentators – Grant Nisbett and Murray Mexted. Nisbett follows the game and Mexted, a former All Black, adds some spicy comment.

But that is all in the past. Mexted has been shown the door by Sky simply because he criticised the New Zealand rugby union authorities for their decision to cut four teams from the provincial Air New Zealand cup tournament next year.

Mexted was apparently told by Sky that the NZRU was a commercial partner and should not be criticised.

This isn’t the first time that Sky has shown such sensitivity; earlier this year when the Indian cricket team toured New Zealand, its officials took exception to the fact that Craig McMillan, who is associated with the Indian Cricket League, an unauthorised rival to the Indian board’s Indian Premier League, was a commentator for the one-day series.

McMillan was pulled from the team after the complaint during the fourth one-day tie. He was also supposed to be a commentator for the second Test at Napier, alongside former Indian player Ravi Shastri.

Shastri is said to be the one who raised the red flag about McMillan.

The Indian cricket board is king when it comes to cricket, be it the shorter variety or Test match cricket. The Indian team is a drawcard anywhere in the world given the huge number of Indians who are interested in what is to a large extent a boring game.

This trend has been present for some time – sports bodies trying to control media coverage. In Australia, the Australian Football League (Australian rules football) has tried to dictate terms to the the media.

The AFL has its own official website and supplies official pictures of the players to the media; these pictures cannot be used by online media.

Other sports do try to extract the maximum commercial gain from an event by selling rights to an official media organ – and the sad thing is that the media goes along with this.

Which means that actions like that of Sky TV are partly to be blamed for the sports bodies acting like prima donnas. When principle is thrown overboard, the public tend to get the short end of the stick.

Are video referees a help or a hindrance?

TECHNOLOGY has given us many benefits – of that there is little doubt. At times, however, one does tend to wonder whether technology does more harm than good.

This has been brought home to me recently by two incidents – one, a statement by the authorities who run Australian rules football to the effect that they would look at having video referees to help the referees on the ground, and two, an incident during an Australia-New Zealand rugby union game.

Australian rules football — which the Australian state of Victoria is crazy about — holds its final in September and this year the team that won did so by a margin of 12 points. In this code, that means two goals. And for a goal to be awarded, it has to go through without touching the posts.

There was one clear instance in the final where the winners were awarded a goal even though the ball clearly touched one post. When the ball touches the woodwork, only one point is awarded — it is called a behind.

There was a second instance when a goal was awarded to the winning team even though the person who kicked it had committed an offence on an opposition player just before collecting the ball to kick the goal.

Instead of awarding a free kick against the infringing player, the referee let him play on and kick a goal.

There was a third instance where the referees missed blowing the whistle when one of the losing team was heading goalwards and had his jumper yanked to prevent his progress. Whether he would have kicked a goal or not is open to speculation but that was clearly an infringement deserving of a free-kick.

That meant a total of 17 points was in dispute – and the final was won by 12 points. Hence the statement about video referees by the official of the Australian rules governing body.

Of course, there is a lobby which does not want technology to be part of the refereeing process at all. They argue that once video replays are accepted as a means of judging one thing, then there is the likelihood that people will want everything to be adjudicated by means of video replays.

Clearly, that would add a considerable amount of time to the game and annoy the audience. It would also remove one element, that of human unpredictability.

And you don’t want 90,000 people involved in a fracas – that’s about the crowd that the Australian rules final attracts each year.

In the case of the rugby union game, there were some additonal factors at play. The game was staged in Tokyo which meant that a fairly decent sum must have been paid to the Australian and New Zealand boards by the Japanese authorities.

Union has four officials in all – one in the field of play, one on each sideline, and one television match official. In this game, one of the linesmen and the television match official were both Japanese.

Hence when there was doubt over the grounding of the ball by an Australian player in the first half — getting the ball down firmly would have meant five points — the television match official was called on to make a judgement.

He had to communicate his decision through the Japanese linesman who would then tell the referee what it was.

But after two minutes and 50 seconds — I counted — there was still no decision and the referee, who had been growing impatient by the second, awarded a try to Australia. In the end it did not matter because New Zealand won the game. But had they lost, this would have been a point of contention.

In my judgement, the decision was wrong and I was unable to fathom why the television match official took so long and could not yet see that no try had been scored.

But the point is that with the best technology at hand — and Japan is second to none when it comes to technology — the video match official was of no use.

I guess technology has its place but it is not infallible. It is only as efficient as the humans who use it.