All Blacks right to fume as key decisions keep going against them
OPINION: If you were a conspiracy theorist, or prone to the odd bout of paranoia, it would not be too difficult to make the case that there are forces at play looking to bring the All Blacks down a peg or two.
Of course we are all too level-headed to entertain such preposterous notions. But still ...
World Rugby's recent decision on the Sonny Bill Williams suspension to rub out the All Blacks' looming August 11 match-up against provincial sides Counties Manukau and Taranaki as a "meaningful" contest, and thus render the midfielder unavailable for the opening Bledisloe in Sydney on August 19, isn't in itself reason alone for Steve Hansen and co to start taking furtive glances over their shoulders.
But in conjunction with some other things, it could make a Kiwi wonder if our beloved national rugby team isn't up against more than just some well-motivated and resourced opponents.
Let's look at the Williams decision in isolation, which has been appealed by the player and will have to be further considered, hopefully by people who are not Australian, and especially not former Wallabies.
Yes, the three-man panel that firstly deemed Williams' hit on Anthony Watson in the second British and Irish Lions test to be worth four "meaningful" matches' suspension, and then further decreed that the All Blacks' 40 minutes each against Counties and Taranaki did not meet that criteria, contained three Australians, two of whom are ex-Wallabies.
And what is the test that Williams misses because of their ruling? Why, Australia.
That's not to suggest judiciary officers Adam Casselden, David Croft, and John Langford are anything but gentlemen of the utmost integrity and independence.
But perception is an important thing in these matters, and the perception of neutrality in the decision-making process is fundamental.
It's why, at great cost, international rugby has neutral referees. That's not to say referees would blatantly favour their home countries (Hansen actually conceded he would have preferred Welshman Nigel Owens refereed all three tests against the Lions), but just that by having an independent official any such notions are completely removed.
The decision itself has the All Blacks fuming.
If the All Blacks had just played 80 minutes against Counties, that would have been fine. All very "meaningful". Same against Taranaki.
But the problem is a full match against either of those sides wouldn't have been very "meaningful" for the All Blacks, because they would win too easily. Outgunned opponents might be able to hang in for 40, but over 80 they will be ground into the turf.
So the All Blacks, by way of ratcheting up the "meaningful" meter, have come up with this concept of 40 minutes each against two fresh sides, and they actually get something out of it, as do the provincial plodders who round out a worthwhile exercise by playing 40 minutes against each other.
It's so "meaningful" it's being televised, and punters are forking out hard-earned wedge to watch.
Yes, it's semantics. Yes, you can probably make a good case either way. And, yes, the All Blacks don't need SBW to roll the Wallabies.
But there's a principle here. And a worrying trend of key decisions going against the world's No 1 side.
Did you know that the All Blacks, or New Zealand Rugby, are yet to receive a justification from World Rugby on what transpired in the closing minutes of the third test against the Lions at Eden Park?
They are expecting one. But the silence has been deafening.
I have also twice sought clarification on what transpired, and been told only this: "We support the use of the TMO (within protocol) and the team's decision-making process. All performances are subject to 360 review."
Fair enough. They're not obligated to be transparent with the media. But surely they owe the All Blacks an explanation as to why, at the defining moment of the match, a referee blatantly changed his decision, when there was no video evidence to suggest he was entitled to.
Hansen refused to complain about the injustice. But that doesn't mean he or his players weren't upset by it.
Try this test: imagine if the situation had been reversed, and the Lions had been robbed of an awarded penalty on a sideline official's encouragement, with no video backup to support it. The British and Irish roar would still be ringing out.
Almost every big decision went against the All Blacks over the final two tests, and around the judicial committee rooms. It happens. You make your own luck. But when you add everything together, you just can't help but wonder...