‘Running around, green’. With these words Nigel Owens explained his decision to award New Zealand the penalty that enabled the World champions to build the field position that ultimately won them the second Test against Ireland last Saturday.
At the time, Ireland seemed to hold all the aces – momentum, a scrum that was increasingly dominant and an extra man – that would see them achieve a first ever win and at least a draw away to the best team in the world.
It was at that point that my young son saw Daddy morph from a great big orange snuffleupagus (it’s not easy to carry off a dressing gown from which Fozzie Bear could take a skin graft) to scary screaming monster man in the blink of an eye.
If I knew that it was a big decision at the time, so did the referee because he twice more emphasised to the Irish forwards why he had given the penalty, referring in the end to the angle of their backsides.
In that regard, I think it was the angle of Sean O’Brien’s backside rather than Cian Healy’s that caught his eye.
It’s one of the most unsatisfactory elements of the game that even on video review it’s impossible to tell whether Healy was driving around at an angle to force the wheel, or whether he was driving fairly straight but with (Tony) Woodcock on the far side holding his ground there is a natural wheel.
What made the decision all the more galling on closer inspection is that there was a clear penalty to be given to Ireland before the wheel came into play. The video evidence is clear and with Nigel Owens on that side, it was surprising that he didn’t pick up on it.
If you’ve ever seen that viral video with the invisible gorilla about ‘How attention works’, then this is a bit like that. In the video a team in black and a team in white are bouncing basketballs and the viewer is asked to count how many passes the team in white make.
Focused on this task about half the viewers don’t notice the gorilla that comes into the scene, beats his chest and walks out the other side. Owen Franks was the gorilla in this scene because when you’ve seen his transgression, it just screams at you.
What happens is this. Under massive pressure from Healy, Owen Franks drops his bind, first to try to bind on Healy’s arm and then he drops it completely and is seen trying to get his hand inside Healy to release some of the pressure.
A clear penalty made clearer by the two movements of the arm. The moot ‘wheel’ decision comes after this. It’s no wonder that Healy looks confused.
The pain after that comes dripping slow as there were a few occasions where things may have worked out differently, along with one other clear penalty not given.
After the lineout subsequent to the controversial penalty, the All Blacks punch it up a few times. They make some yardage to get close to the Irish 22 before there is a scrappy ruck at which the ball pops out and the referee clearly calls that it was off feet and therefore not a knock on.
All of which is fine, until Richie McCaw drops on the ball to retain possession for his team. The problem is that McCaw’s starting position is halfway up the side of the ruck and he is clearly offside. He is literally a yard from the referee at the time.
However, McCaw has long since been coated in some invisible cloak where this kind of thing is concerned. What was worse was that picking the ball up in such an advanced position he was able to give the Blacks good go-forward that saw them reach the Irish five-metre line.
And so the pain continued until such time as Dan Carter hits his first drop goal attempt. It wasn’t actually that awful an effort, especially given how bad the pass to him was.
The fact that O’Brien made contact with the ball so early in its flight made the kick look worse than it was. Incidentally, O’Brien’s pace out to block was unbelievable, as he actually came from the far side of the breakdown.
As a result of O’Brien’s deflection, Eoin Reddan concedes the five-metre scrum. In fairness to both Ali Williams and Adam Thomson, they spotted O’Brien’s touch and realised they were now onside and they were all over Reddan when he claimed the ball, giving him no option other than to run out over the dead ball-line with it. So Carter gets his second chance. Even then, he didn’t strike the ball well but got away with it.
None of the above should be construed as a go at Nigel Owens, who I have long believed to be, along with Alain Rolland, one of the two best northern Hemisphere referees. I just think that he’s had better days than the end-game of last week’s match.
The real millennium bug wasn’t that nice little earner for the IT crowd. No, it was the fact that in the previous millennium we hadn’t been able to get a win in the Parc des Princes.
That was one of two things that really bugged us at the tail end of the last millennium; two things I wasn’t sure I would live to see (and I was only 33 at the time!). The other was to get a win over New Zealand. I will be horrified if last Saturday the closest we come.
We’ve become conditioned to seeing Ireland commit errors towards the tail end of the several matches that we’ve pushed New Zealand in over the last ten years or so. Last Saturday was remarkable for many things, one of which was that we grew in strength late on.
Even in the death throes it wasn’t really down to our making mistakes, just the strange compendium of circumstances alluded to above. Nobody missed a tackle, sliced a kick or threw a wayward pass.
In the cold light of day, Declan Kidney and company will realise that and also that if they can get themselves into the same situation again, there is no reason why they cannot win it.
The difficulty will be in getting into the same position again, for two reasons. The All Blacks rarely put two poor performances back to back. And Ireland rarely produce their very best in the last match of the season.
As a result, if Ireland can push their hosts as close again it will be a hell of a performance. That said, they know what the template is. Aggression in defence, solid set pieces and intelligence in attack with a focus on retaining control of the ball. Simples.
It will be fascinating to see how McCaw goes at number 8 and also how they fare without Carter in these less pressurised circumstances than the World Cup. Paddy Power makes it a 15-point game. If we can keep it under that, allied to our performance last weekend, this will help our ranking and will have made a difficult looking trip very worthwhile.
Do the Irish players now believe they can get a result against New Zealand? You’d have to think so.