Blues play good cop, bad cop over referees
If the Blues show half the teamwork of their coaching knights this week, then they just might have a shot at Super Rugby's top six when all is said and done.
After Sir Graham Henry's controversial outburst earlier in the week about the standard of officiating in Super Rugby, some sanity - and diplomacy - returned to proceedings yesterday.
Where Henry went on the attack with his broadsides over "ludicrous" decisions during the 23-3 defeat to the Crusaders in Christchurch, Kirwan yesterday adopted a much more conciliatory view on the standard of officiating ahead of tomorrow's top-six matchup against the Brumbies on Eden Park.
Henry had launched with both barrels on Tuesday, wondering whether TMO Keith Brown was "blind", suggesting All Black prop Wyatt Crockett had "got away with murder" and lamenting the lack of "basic" policing of offside.
The inflammatory tone of Henry's comments predictably attracted serious media attention and would have certainly piqued the interest of referees bosses at Sanzar and the NZRU. Last night it was announced he would face the judiciary over the comments.
But after the World Cup-winning coach had effectively flagged the Blues' concerns, Kirwan yesterday followed up with a much more placatory view on the changing role and working practices of the officiating crew.
While Henry's comments had the raw power of a Ma'a Nonu hit-up, Kirwan's were more Conrad Smith in their subtlety. In other words, he was the perfect foil. The good cop following the bad cop.
Kirwan was even smart enough to introduce a degree of flippancy, joking that the Blues' veteran defence coach had been disciplined for his outburst by having his Pinot Noir privileges removed for a week.
"We've had a little bit of a laugh about it, because that's the best way to deal with things," said Kirwan. "There's a seriousness to it and we're getting on top of that. Graham is a fantastic personality and didn't mean anything by his tongue-in-cheek comments but in our modern world sometimes you can't throw those out there."
The reality is the Blues' coaching knights have perfectly highlighted the plight of teams with very small margins for error having results influenced by borderline decisions, both on the field and in the replay booth.
Kirwan said Henry's comments had only advanced a process already under way. "I'd put things in the dropbox for [Sanzar refs boss] Lyndon [Bray] and been talking to [NZRU chief] Bryce [Lawrence] and Jacko (referee Glen Jackson), so we've been moving along those lines on some of our concerns. We've had some clarification round some of those decisions.
"We get frustrated. There are different ways to communicate it, and we've moved on now."
Kirwan said all Super Rugby coaches were under pressure and key decisions became magnified in importance, especially in "grey areas" like the maul and with the expanded review powers of the video official. "We've seen some fantastic things happen this year from the referee and TMO point of view and we just need to keep refining it.
"The [increased role of the] TMO has been a real positive, and there's some common-sense around those decisions sometimes. But you can't blame the refs - they've got to rule the rule."
It was here Kirwan felt rugby could learn from league. "When they go to the TMO, refs have already made a decision which I think is a real positive. But this is all good. We're talking about the game, Lyndon's been fantastic and so has Bryce and we're working towards making all of us better."
Meanwhile, Kirwan yesterday made two changes to his lineup to face the Brumbies tomorrow night.
With outstanding blindside flanker Steven Luatua dealing with a "banged up" neck from the Crusaders game, he's been replaced by openside specialist Brendon O'Connor, while Francis Saili returns at second five with Jackson Willison dropping to the bench.
Emerging tighthead prop Angus Ta'avao has also been bracketed, though Kirwan hopes he'll shake off a knee injury in time to take his place in a crucial matchup between two sides sitting inside the competition's top six.
BLUES: Charles Piutau, Frank Halai, Rene Ranger, Francis Saili, George Moala, Chris Noakes, Piri Weepu; Peter Saili, Luke Braid, Brendon O'Connor, Ali Williams (c), Culum Retallick, Angus Ta'avao/ Sam Prattley, Keven Mealamu, Tim Perry. Reserves: James Parsons, Sam Prattley/Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Anthony Boric, Kane Barrett, Jamison Gibson-Park, Baden Kerr, Jackson Willison.
Which 2015 NZ Super Rugby team looks best?