Now that the ink is dry on Munster’s 41 Phases being written into their glorious history, is it safe to suggest that they should never have got past phases three or five?
This has less to do with them and more to do with the way the game is refereed. There were two forces at work here: the first is the reluctance of any referee to give a match-winning penalty in the endgame. This is understandable but unacceptable. It’s like a player refusing to put himself forward and take responsibility for fear of failure. Imagine for example if Ronan O’Gara had gone AWOL when his forwards were slaving away trying to work a drop goal position for him.
The second is the virtual refusal of the same refs to implement a law that is fundamental to having a fair contest for possession, and which is at the very heart of rugby – namely staying on your feet at the breakdown. Or at least trying to do so.
Paddy O’Brien’s inability to make any progress on this issue, despite pre World Cup promises that ‘sealing off’ would not be tolerated by refs, is the most compelling reason why he should resign his position as manager of referees in the IRB.
There are lots of things about the breakdown that are hard to spot in real time. Players going immediately off their feet with the express intention of making the ball unplayable for the opposition is not one of them.
Rewind the 41 Phases video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iau_zmBXAvE and ask yourself how any referee who wasn’t hell bent on avoiding something controversial could possibly allow John Hayes do what he did in the third and fifth stages of the sequence.
I don’t know what the relationship is between Hayes and his hooker Damien Varley, but it must be pretty close. Twice Varley took the ball up and was tackled, and twice Hayes smothered him so effectively that the prop couldn’t have acted with more alacrity had be been out in the park with his child and automatic gunfire suddenly rang out. Referee Nigel Owens was perfectly positioned both times. He did nothing.
I’ve asked a few refs if this action, which we see at every other tackle, is legal, and there is unanimity that it isn’t. And yet nobody can come up with a credible explanation as to why it isn’t refereed. Doing so would require some effort on the part of players and coaches to break a bad habit, but it would be easier than the shift in accommodating the ELVs, and would restore some fairness to the contest after the tackle.
I sent the sequence to Paddy O’Brien asking him why his refs apparently have no appetite for cleaning this up, and giving us back one of the key criteria that once separated rugby union from league. He looked at it and responded as follows:
“Had a look and get your point. It will always come down to whether this infringing has been occurring the whole match or was just in these last phases. A referee would not be expected to penalise something he had not penalised all match but certainly sealing off is part of the game we have asked the International Panel to be vigilant on.”
There is nothing worse than the first ‘crooked feed’ call from a ref coming in the 80th minute – which is perhaps why Nigel allowed Tomas O’Leary fire it into the back row to get the sequence started – but what sometimes happens is that in the opening minutes refs blow one or two players for ‘sealing off’ and then forget about it, and gradually we’re back to where we started.
And evidently Paddy O’Brien’s request of the international panel to be vigilant is going unheeded. Is it really that hard to figure out?