Mark Reason: Super Rugby referees foster bad habits that cost the All Blacks
OPINION: On Friday night Super Rugby walked back into the room and everyone suddenly went very quiet. It had a been a hell of a party and then the too friendly bloke shows up. He talks in super close-up and little flakes of beer-soaked chippies keep getting fired out into your face by a machine gun of gobby enthusiasm. And every 30 seconds he asks in a very loud voice, "How the hell are you, mate?"
The first game of Super Rugby's return was an unwelcome intrusion, but it also told us a few things going forwards. Stop being nice to Aussies. Even George Smith and Quade Cooper were embarrassed by just how hopeless some of their team-mates were. Twenty-five losses in a row to New Zealand teams. Get out of here. A lack of competition is hurting the All Blacks when a half decent team finally turns up.
But unfortunately some of those Aussies looked good in comparison to referee Mike Fraser. In the opening couple of minutes Fraser blew his whistle, but then waved play on as several players stopped, and the Highlanders ended up scoring.
There was some nonsense at a lineout when the Aussie halfback got penalised although the Highlanders No 9 had committed the identical offence. Finally Fraser got cross with a couple of senior Aussies for wondering why he had let a player continue to the tryline after he had put a knee on the ground and why he had then, unsighted, blown his whistle to award a try when the ball was still off the ground.
In my opinion it was hard to avoid the conclusion that Fraser was unintentionally biased. Please, Super Rugby, neutral referees. But wherever you looked, there was an example of hopeless officiating. In Japan the Blues went on to score a try off a pass that was six metres forward. I am not joking.
And poor Glen Jackson completely lost the plot. In the period from the 15th to the 76th minutes Jackson awarded the Canes 15 penalties to four for the Crusaders. The worst example was when he penalised Mitchell Drummond for not releasing, completely missing the fact that Drummond's support had been illegally held back. It should have been a penalty and a yellow card the other way. Jackson changed the result.
I mention this stuff in some detail because it is not helping the All Blacks. Let's get one myth out of the way. They did not fail to win the Lions series because of the reffing. It was not only the best they will see all year, it went in their favour. The All Blacks were awarded 34 penalties to 25 for the Lions in the series. They enjoyed a favourable penalty count in four of the six halves and two out of the three matches.
Many of those penalties were crucial. Two of the All Blacks tries were scored on a penalty advantage (included in my penalty statistics). These advantages are very influential because they let skillful sides roll the dice in an effort to double their points. One All Black try was scored from a penalty tap. And a fourth All Black try was scored from a lineout following a penalty.
The only try they scored that did not originate from a penalty came from a Lions mistake when Liam Williams dropped the ball. It is to the Lions credit that they did not concede a single try off turnover or counter-attack.
No, the All Blacks failed to win the series off poor discipline. The red card to Sonny Bill and yellow to Jerome Kaino were devastating. And I blame the Super Rugby refs. They are still hopeless at this stuff. Why was Kaino not cited for again smashing into a man's jaw at the weekend. He cost the Blues the match. And when Ngani Laumape did the same thing against the Crusaders, astonishingly there was not even an award of a penalty.
If southern hemisphere officials are going to be this incompetent, then they are going to foster bad habits that will cost the All Blacks in big matches. On the other hand if you live by the sword ... Steve Hansen apparently saw nothing wrong with several of the tackles that happened in Dublin last year, and that permissiveness came back to bite his side.
The All Blacks were also predictably hurt by bad goal-kicking. This is down to poor coaching. If Barrett had technical issues, as the coaches subsequently claimed, then what the hell was he doing missing goals in the final test.
It was a series that busted a few myths. Hansen's greatness as a coach was questioned. And Barrett is one hell of a player when the sun is shining but, unlike Cruden, his bad days sometimes lead to All Blacks defeats. Cruden does not reach the heights of Barrett but nor does he fall so low. Cruden has never lost in an All Blacks shirt when picked as a starter.
The game that the All Blacks had most control of in the series was the one that Cruden played most minutes in. And the guy who might give them that control again in the coming years is Richie Mo'unga. As the Maori discovered, it would be a mistake to pull Damian McKenzie out of the back three where he is such a devastating runner.
But above all the return of Super Rugby reminded me just what a joy the Lions series was. An American correspondent in Christchurch watched the Lions matches in a pub and tells me he has never heard noise like it at a New Zealand sporting event.
But hear this. It was all good-natured and at the end both sets of fans shook hands and agreed it was a fair result. So good on you Christchurch and cheers, New Zealand. It was a hell of a party.