Picture the scene. It’s a New Zealand versus Australia final with the All-Blacks leading by the slimmest of margins … a single point. The clock is ticking, there are seconds to go and then…
The ball goes loose in front of the posts. In the midst of the scramble a New Zealand player appears to knock the ball on. A teammate instinctively picks it up, thus denying Australia the opportunity to mount an attack. The referee has to make a decision … fast.
What does he do?
The day after Australia was effectively allowed to steal Scotland’s World Cup semi-final spot, World Rugby issued the result of their review into the referee’s performance.
Following a full review of match officials’ performance, the World Rugby match official selection committee has clarified the decision made by referee Craig Joubert to award a penalty to Australia for offside in the 78th minute of the Rugby World Cup 2015 quarter-final between Australia and Scotland at Twickenham.
The selection committee confirms that Joubert applied World Rugby Law 11.7 penalising Scotland’s Jon Welsh, who had played the ball following a knock-on by a team-mate, resulting in an offside.
On review of all available angles, it is clear that after the knock-on, the ball was touched by Australia’s Nick Phipps and Law 11.3(c) states that a player can be put on-side by an opponent who intentionally plays the ball.
It is important to clarify that, under the protocols, the referee could not refer to the television match official in this case and therefore had to rely on what he saw in real time. In this case, Law 11.3(c) should have been applied, putting Welsh onside. The appropriate decision, therefore, should have been a scrum to Australia for the original knock-on.
The governing body has hung Joubert out to dry. The platitudes that followed the statement were rugby’s equivalent of a board backing a football manager. He will play no part in the semi-finals. His sprint off the park at the end of Sunday’s match was as damaging to his reputation as the awful decision.
Meanwhile the real victims of one of the most outrageous blunders in sport can only sit and watch this farce. An entire nation watched in dismay as an official refused to seek assistance from the array of technical wizardry that surrounded him on Sunday. Scotland player Dave Denton described the penalty decision as something that will affect the rest of his life. It really was that big.
Craig Joubert could not have known for certain that his call was correct. The ball bounced around as though in a pin-ball machine. Hands flayed as desperate players from each side sought to gain possession. It eventually came to rest in the arms of a Scottish rugby player.
Joubert initially signalled a scrum. The correct decision. When Australian players immediately cried “offside”, Jouberts arm shot up from horizontal. It was to be a penalty. Few people are aware but Joubert could have deemed the offside to be accidental, in which case the decision would have been a scrum. Would anyone have challenged this decision regardless of who had played the ball into Jon Welsh's arms?
In an article for Sky Sports, former England international Stuart Barnes wrote:
"Let's say that Josh Strauss was the last player to touch the ball as it ricocheted forward into the nearby arms of Jon Welsh. A few years ago the decision would have been immediate and non-controversial; accidental offside and a scrum to Australia.
"The prop forward was so close to the blue and gold jerseys scuffling for the ball he never had a chance to even think whether it came last off Strauss. That is why there is accidental and deliberate offside.
The South African referee - in following a trend that makes officiating a matter of black and white instead of empathetic shades - has made the error of his career and it has cost Scotland quite possibly a place in the semi-finals of the World Cup."
So where does it leave the Rugby World Cup? In the hands of the gods is the answer … or the referees to be more accurate. As my opening paragraphs make clear, the same situation could arise again, but the governing body has done nothing to address it.
The tournament itself now stands tainted. By admitting the penalty was wrong then the governing body has called into question the legitimacy of Australia’s semi-final place. If the Wallabies overcome the impressive Pumas then the final itself is similarly tainted.
And what if Michael Cheika’s Wallabies triumph in the final? The Australian coach has lacked any shred of humility or acknowledgment of his team's incredible good fortune, saying coarsley: "It's a penalty and that's the way it works."
The semi-final controversy didn’t begin and end with Joubert awarding a penalty. Questions have also been asked of the refusal of the TMO to draw Joubert’s attention to the late shoulder-charge by Drew Mitchell on Stuart Hogg in the moments before the ill-fated penalty decision.
The same TMO brought the referee back to review an innocuous knock-on by Sean Maitland in the first half. Anyone who has followed Scotland’s progress under Vern Cotter will tell you that this aggressive defence is a tactic employed by the Scots. It has led to several interception tries. What it wasn't was an intentional knock-on.
Indeed in the video replay, Maitland could be seen attempting to flick the ball with his hand in order to keep it in the air. He narrowly failed. The resulting yellow card was soft to say the least. Australia capitalised and scored a try with the player in the sin-bin.
If anything, Drew Mitchell’s shoulder charge on Hogg was worse. Mitchell was as late with his challenge as any I have seen. It should have resulted in a penalty for Scotland and a probable sin-binning for the Australian back. How might the game have ended with a Scottish line-out much further up the field, Australia reduced to 14 men and even more vital seconds ticking away.
The controversy has gone world-wide. Hundreds of millions of people have watched an injustice. Even the Australian media have mocked Joubert, with one newspaper jokingly awarding him the man of the match.
Some have even asked why Joubert was still officiating at the highest level. He has courted World Cup controversy before. In 2011 he was roundly criticised after repeatedly refusing to penalise the hosts New Zealand in their final against France. The All Blacks eventually won the high-pressure contest by one point.
Accusations that southern hemisphere nations are favoured by officials have been doing the rounds for years. Rugby aficionados will recant tales of tries being allowed despite obvious forward passes and of clever runs obstructing more naïve Northern hemisphere opponents. This kind of gamesmanship has all but been eradicated by the use of TMOs.
The whole episode has left a very bitter taste in the mouth. There were already rumblings of dirty tricks when an Australian official cited two of Scotland’s key players days before the vital match. A three week ban was handed out to Ross Ford and Jonny Gray. Both players were granted an eleventh hour reprieve when the sentence was quashed on appeal. This will have affected the Scots' preparation.
When England were unexpectedly knocked out of the competition, the dream final for sponsors, advertisers and TV switched from New Zealand versus England to New Zealand versus Australia. Everything that you’d want to happen to Scotland in order to facilitate such a final happened before and during Sunday's quarter-final.
Cock-up or conspiracy, it doesn’t matter. We have watched a sporting scandal. Craig Joubert has opened a Rugby Union can of worms.
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