This British & Irish Lions three-Test series against the Springboks must be determined by the superiority of one team over the other and not a referee horror show, as was the case with the Lions series against the All Blacks in 2017, writes Mark Keohane.
Frenchman Romain Poite admitted four years after the fact that he got the biggest decision of the Test series wrong, and that he knew immediately he had got it wrong and nearly destroyed his change room afterwards because of the anger that he had buckled under the pressure of the occasion.
Poite’s reward was to get the whistle for the next big Test match.
When will there ever be accountability for referees getting the big calls wrong? It seems in rugby the answer is never, and too often a professional sporting outcome is defended on the basis of human error.
But the same referees who produce these howlers that influence matches and determine series and World Cup outcomes, are rewarded with applause and continued sheltered employment.
It is the dishonesty around refereeing howlers that irks me. If the mistakes were owned on the day or the day after, then the issue is dealt with and the consequence is the referee is stood down from the next big game and if the pattern is consistent, then he is stood down from international rugby.
To borrow from former All Blacks coach Sir Steve Hansen, any referee can make a mistake and referees do make mistakes. To again borrow from Hansen he felt the All Blacks, in the third Test at Eden Park in 2017, should have done enough not to have to rely on an 80th minute penalty opportunity to win the game.
Hansen has also reiterated that the kick still had to be goaled, so he has never suggested French referee Romain Poite cost the All Blacks the series; rather his bizarre decision to overturn a penalty to the All Blacks cost the home team the chance to win the series.
Hansen, reacting to Poite’s concession that he got it wrong in the biggest call of his career, said it was more disturbing that the referee admitted he was told by World Rugby that he got it wrong, but it was justice for the series and justified his call.
It is scandalous but it was also scandalous in 2011 when Bryce Lawrence blew the Springboks out of the World Cup and in 2007 when Wayne Barnes did the same to the All Blacks. The 2007 and 2011 quarter-final referee performances were biased and obviously skewed in interpretation.
The 2017 last minute call from Poite was a once-off call, but it was the biggest of the series.
Poite, in an interview on RugbyPass, is reported as saying he was so angry with himself that he nearly destroyed his referee change room at Eden Park.
This is what Poite said:
‘Many people called me after the game and told me, ‘That was a mistake, but it was justice, the right decision to make. Even the World Rugby staff management gave me this call. But I said that I am paid to make a big decision at the end of the game. That was my concern.
‘I can promise you when I went back to the changing room, I destroyed everything, because I was angry at myself.’
The Frenchman said it’s a shame the tour will be remembered for the final call.
‘I felt the refereeing in this tour, 2017, was great. And what will we remember? Just the last decision of the tour.
‘I was angry about myself, because I destroyed the feelings of everyone about the refereeing overall. It’s a group, it’s a team, it’s a family. In my view, I did wrong for the others. I support my mistake; I am happy to say I made a mistake because I am human.’
Hansen told Stuff.co.nz
‘The disturbing thing for me is the phone call he gets from World Rugby saying ‘you made a mistake, but it’s justified. The problem with the game at the moment is that we are trying to justify too many things.
‘If we want the game to be a proper game, and one that is fair, then you can’t have people from World Rugby making those comments.’
Hansen added: ‘World Rugby needed the Lions to be successful because there’s a lot of talk about the Lions not touring again. And when you get comments like that, from the horse’s mouth, it justifies those thoughts.’
What a sour taste it would leave if the Lions series in 2021 is decided by the same sort of slack approach to upholding the laws that we saw in 2017, and had confirmed four years later by Poite’s admission.
WATCH: The controversial decision
New Zealand referee Ben O’Keefe just this past weekend controversially red carded in a decision that was overturned by an independent World Rugby committee. O’Keefe faced no sanction and will be in charge of the second Test in the Lions series in South Africa.