OPINION: Ah, the silence of the lambs. All across New Zealand there was scarcely a bleat all weekend, writes Mark Reason this week.
Even commentator Tony Johnson, a man whose giant one eye is seen as a delicacy in some countries, didn't stick his fork into the refs too often. Could this possibly be because the Blues and the Crusaders got the best of nearly every decision?
And yet just a few weeks earlier referee Stu Dickinson had been the subject of national phone-ins. The poor man was vilified. Sure, he made one big mistake early on in the game between the Crusaders and the Reds, but was that reason enough to serve an extradition order?
The Aussies and Kiwis call me and my countrymen "whingeing Poms" and with good reason. But I'm starting to think that the Brits are second division compared with the average Kiwi rugby fan. Even 30 million sheep were drowned out by supporters bleating after the last World Cup.
Television over here has a great deal to answer for. I was talking to Paddy O'Brien the other day, New Zealand's boss of international referees, and we were both appalled by the amount of criticism copped by rugby referees on New Zealand TV. It is endemic compared with other countries.
O'Brien pointed out that when the Crusaders played the Sharks at Twickenham earlier in the year, the British commentary team spoke almost exclusively about the high quality of the rugby. In New Zealand it seems that some poor soul is strung up almost every other week. I beg you, please don't let Murray Mexted near a microphone during the World Cup.
The administrators should also take their share of flak. The Super 15 is a great competition in danger of being undermined by the daft appointment of home-country referees to the knockout stages.
At the weekend both the Blues and the Crusaders games were refereed by New Zealanders. In Auckland, the Blues' opening 13 points all followed infringements by the home side – a massively forward pass, a knock-on and a no-arms hit, the third such hit that had gone unpunished.
In Nelson, the Sharks were penalised 6-2 in the first half despite having most of the territory and phase possession. Four of those penalties were highly questionable. The opening Crusaders try also came about because George Whitelock got away with disengaging from a scrum early.
That scrummage exemplified the complexity of rugby's laws. The referee could have penalised the Sharks for a crooked feed, he might have said the ball went straight through the scrum and ordered a reset or he could have penalised Whitelock.
Rugby's laws are not black and white. The players know this. Both the Waratahs and Sharks captains were tremendously gracious after the match just as Richie McCaw had been after the loss in Brisbane. But the rest of society has lost touch with the idea that sport isn't supposed to be entirely fair and that part of the challenge is to accept decisions and move on.
That would be much easier if we had neutral referees. Doubtless both Chris Pollock and Bryce Lawrence, who will referee the final regardless, had no idea that the New Zealand side was getting the better of their decisions.
But it didn't look good. It appeared a throwback to the bad old days when the odd provincial ref would actually say "our ball".
About 80 per cent of fans say they would like a ref from a neutral country. They don't want even a whiff of one of the most infamous matches in history when New Zealand beat the 1959 Lions 18-17. Don Clarke kicked six penalties that day and the Lions scored four tries. Even the Carisbrook crowd was chanting "Reds, Reds" at the end, such was the shame at the refereeing.
Imagine the furore if the heroic Crusaders get turfed out by a bad call in Cape Town this weekend, a match with four South African officials. It could even have repercussions for the World Cup.
Italy coach Nick Mallett has already said: "All that emotion will be with New Zealand after the Canterbury earthquake. It's going to be very hard for any World Cup referee to give a critical penalty [against the All Blacks] in the final moments."
It will be even harder if the Crusaders cop it on Sunday. But if they do, give the ref a fair go.
» Mark Reason is a senior sports journalist formerly with the Times of London and Daily Telegraph in the UK. He now lives in Wairarapa and is a weekly sports columnist for Fairfax Media.
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