Mark Reason: Wellington Sevens final refereeing charade an embarrassment
OPINION: Brendan Venter, the former Springbok centre and current technical director of Saracens, has called for an investigation. And it is not cricket in Mumbai or tennis in St Petersburg that Venter is concerned about, but rugby in Wellington, the home of the New Zealand Rugby Union.
The Boks are outraged by both the refereeing of their pool match and their final against New Zealand at the Wellington sevens and while it may go against the grain to feel empathy with a South African rugby supporter, they have a point.
The officiating of both those matches made any neutral observer wonder what the hell was going on.
Let's start with the final. The penalty count in that match was 9-1 in favour of New Zealand and they were not the dominant side. Every marginal call went their way. They got away with forward passes and knock-ons, while South Africa were penalised, once quite crucially, for knock-ons that seemed to have propelled the ball back out of the hand.
New Zealand were allowed to do whatever they liked at the breakdown.
They came in from ludicrously offside positions to clean out, notably in an important try scored by Rieko Ioane.
In contrast South Africa were penalised at one breakdown even when the men in black were not competing for the ball.
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South Africa raised their arms to appeal for high tackles that weren't given and then heard the whistle blown against them once more. They raised their arms to appeal against Akira Ioane diving in off his feet and wrestling a ball clear. South Africa almost stopped playing, so obvious was the penalty.
The whole charade was an embarrassment and it made you wonder two things. Does the sevens circuit covertly endorse home town refereeing in order to boost ticket sales. And was the appointment of the referee for Sunday's final as neutral as those of us who just love sport have a right to expect.
The referee in question was Matt O'Brien. He had already refereed New Zealand's quarter final against Kenya when he let a New Zealand pass go that was 10 metres forward. That is not an exaggeration.
Despite such a blunder, O'Brien was appointed to the final. O'Brien referees under the flag of Australia, but he is a New Zealander. He is also the son of Paddy O'Brien, who is World Rugby's man in charge of sevens officials.
When stuff like this goes on, it is almost impossible to avoid the charge of nepotism. There is no way that Paddy O'Brien should be in a position of power when his son is a likely candidate. There is no way that Matt O'Brien should officiate New Zealand matches when he is clearly a Kiwi. Both then become hostages to misfortune.
This country has a poor history when it comes to home town bias, most infamously in the disgraceful umpiring of the cricket series against the West Indies. It was the series when Michael Holding kicked over the stumps, Colin Croft barged an umpire and Lawrence Rowe said, "You're nothing but a pack of cheats."
It did not help when one of the umpires said in an after dinner speech, "I didn't know the main export from the West Indies was the Coconut Rough."
One of the great sadnesses of that series was that New Zealand's batsmendid not choose to take the moral high ground and walk when they knew that they had edged the ball. By standing their ground they were endorsing cheating.
Now although I am not suggesting that Matt O'Brien deliberately favoured New Zealand on Sunday, I am suggesting he was wearing Kiwi goggles, influenced by his Southland upbringing and playing time at Otago University, and by the noise of the crowd.
I suspect he will review the match coverage and cringe with embarrassment. I feel sorry for O'Brien.
He is an honest official put in an invidious position and the occasion got the better of him.
It is the same embarrassment that cricket umpire Billy Bowden should feel for refusing to give Corey Anderson out in the one-day international against Pakistan.
Bowden could apparently hear a thin inside edge in the Pakistani innings, but not when Anderson got a snick that could be heard in the stands.
It may have been a good weekend for Kiwi sport in terms of results, but it was a bad weekend in terms of integrity. It was disappointing none of New Zealand's sevens leaders could have sympathised with South Africa, who were also done over by Stuart Adamson in the group stages.