New ref steams up SA rugby fans

2016-02-01 08:00
Rosco Speckman (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – Another year ... and another Australasian rugby referee for South Africans to get hopping mad about.

Weekend public enemy No 1 in living rooms on these shores, it seems, is Aussie (though via New Zealand) official Matt O’Brien following Sunday’s heart-stopping, last-gasp 24-21 reverse by the Blitzbokke to hosts NZ in the final of the Wellington leg of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.

It would also have given South African enthusiasts little comfort that the 34-year-old referee is the son of Paddy O’Brien, former head of the IRB (now World Rugby) Referee Board and not always the most popular whistle-man here during his own heyday.

Since O’Brien snr’s era on the park, other Antipodean officials to raise the hackles of South African critics and fans over the years – either at Test or Super Rugby level -- have included Stuart Dickinson, Paul Honiss, Bryce Lawrence, George Ayoub, Rohan Hoffmann and Matt Goddard.

Matt O’Brien plies his trade as an Aussie, after relocating to the Gold Coast there in adult life, but he was born and raised in Southland, New Zealand, so social media in South Africa was not shy to lament “home-town decisions” – and sometimes resort to much stronger language than that -- in the wake of the showpiece outcome.

In truth, an inevitable game-changer was the yellow-carding of in-form Blitzbokke dynamo Rosco Speckman with just under four minutes left on the clock after he had tracked back a long way for a try-saving tackle but then played the ball from the ground in an off-side position under pressure – there could be relatively few quibbles about that professional-foul ruling.

The Blitzbokke were leading 21-7 at the time but their reduction to six men for two critical minutes as he sat in the “bin” effectively ended up being the lifeline the hosts needed, and they scored three tries to somehow pull the game out of the fire.

South Africans had reason to feel more irate, though, about many of the borderline decisions that appeared to almost unfailingly go the New Zealand way during the nerve-jangling encounter.

By Sport24 count, O’Brien gave the hosts eight penalties to one, generally at the breakdown and on a couple of occasions earning the displeasure – as captured by the television cameras – of a head-shaking South African sideline contingent led by coach Neil Powell.

There were at least three instances of possible forward passes by New Zealand players going unnoticed, whereas at a key juncture of the second half, with the Blitzbokke seemingly set for a game-killing score, O’Brien was able to find reason for suggesting Seabelo Senatla had spilled the ball forward in a heavy tackle as a team-mate gathered the still aerial ball and sprinted toward the whitewash.

The official may well also have allowed to go unpunished an early tackle in the air on Kwagga Smith as he gathered a kick-off, and a ridiculously skew throw-in to a NZ-fed scrum which allowed them to begin the counter-attack eventually leading to the decisive try after the clock had stopped counting down.

A flood of angry tweets from South Africans followed the final whistle, suggesting the Blitzbokke had been diddled.

One came from renowned sports scientist Ross Tucker (@Scienceofsport) who said: “Sevens a great spectacle, great addition to Olympics, but refereeing remains at high school level. Wait for a buffoon to decide Olympic gold (in Rio later this year – Sport24).

“My suggestion would be one ref in each half looking exclusively at ruck contests, a third to control general play. Accuracy non-negotiable.”

Tucker later partially retracted the sentiments from his first tweet: “So I shouldn’t have used the word buffoon. It’s a systemic, not personal problem. But until it’s prioritised, I worry about its implications.”

Plenty of South African couch potatoes were clearly not in a mood for such forgiveness over O’Brien’s handling of the final.

Consolation for the eleventh-hour loss was the Blitzbokke heading the series standings after being losing finalists – they have 54 points, followed by Fiji on 52 and New Zealand on 47.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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