Thursday, 22 March 2018

Referee was not to blame for Spain's failure in Belgium

Rarely has a Rugby Europe Championship match generated as much discussion as the recent encounter between Belgium and Spain. Unfortunately of course not for positive reasons and what was a stupid situation to begin with and received just as much ill informed comments afterwards. So it is worthwhile going over a few things here.

First of all something everybody agrees on. The decision from Rugby Europe not to alter the referee was an incredibly stupid one. The potential for this controversy to arise could have been quickly averted had Rugby Europe acted similarly to the 6 Nations when attention was brought to the fact Marius van der Westhuizen had spent time in England training sessions over the week.

The perception of a bias was so obviously in the minds of the Spanish right from the start. They had already complained before the match, and it only took about 5 minutes and the first couple of decisions to against them for them to lose their composure, start to get irritable and unable to accept the referee's calls as being made in good faith.

This was easily foreseeable and easily preventable. It would have been quite simple and made total sense to change the match officials lineup to one both teams were happy with. Basically everyone agrees on this points and Rugby Europe have come in for some deserved criticism.

However many of the other responses to this match have also been completely wrong.

First of all from some of the Spain players. There have been reports of verbal abuse towards Vlad Iordachesu over the course of the match (which is not hard to believe) and at the end of the match several players then became physically aggressive and disgracefully chased the referee off the pitch.

Those were ugly scenes rarely seen in rugby and completely unacceptable. A few of players involved (namely Pierre Barthéré, Guillaume Rouet, Lucas Guillaume) may face sanctions for this. Also to see the FER promote #JusticeForRugbyValues after that incident or Lucas Guillaume call the referee "a thug" is ironic considering their behaviour.

After the match many in Spain have not calmed down about this either and gone to great lengths to try and find anything (even digging up articles from the Samoa Observer which proves nothing other than the characteristic incompetence of the Samoan Union) to promote the idea of a Romanian conspiracy against them.

Firstly there are fabricated statistics claiming the penalty count from the match was either 24-4 or 28-8 against Spain which have been floated about and repeated by numerous players on social media.

Now 24 penalties against one side in a single match let alone 28 is basically unheard of. If those stats were true then they would indeed be such an outlier to raise eyebrows and certainly create some suspicion of highly odd and unusual officiating worthy of further investigation.

However those stats are not correct. The actual penalty count was 18-8 against Spain. Still a very high number for one team to concede in a match but not unprecedentedly so. Nevertheless the fabricated stats have still been repeated in some media reports to try and promote the idea of a conspiracy.

Then came the angrily titled amateur videos running through the performance from Iordachescu. One of which now has well over 100k views, has been shared by several on the Spain team, and reportedly being used by FER to back up their complain about the refereeing performance.

Now to clarify, I am not of the opinion that Iordachescu had a great game, nor did I even rate him particularly highly as a referee before this game. There were mistakes including a couple of ridiculous breakdown penalties given to Belgium with tackler not releasing or not supporting weight. He did not officiate the mauls well throughout. A clear high tackle missed.

However we see mistakes like these in professional games every single week. Often from referees with much bigger reputations as well (a look through Nigel Owens' performance in the match between Exeter and Montpellier earlier this year would result in a much longer video).

This isn't to excuse any errors or claim the ref was perfect, but let's remember what is being alleged here is that this was a display by Iordachescu of some of the most unusually incompetent and crooked refereeing ever seen in order to single handedly cost Spain the match. It is this claim that simply does not hold up.

Among the complaints in a video titled "Critical Review of Referee in Belgium vs Spain - Incompetence, Inconsistency and Integrity" from a video gamer who analyses what is supposedly "one of the worst performances I have seen in any form of rugby".

- He missed a knock in a tackle that wasn't at all obvious and had no effect on the game.
- He should have ignored a lineout throw that wasn't straight as it wasn't "incredibly not straight".
- He played a penalty advantage too long.
- He didn't "set his standards from the start" so had to correctly penalise Spain for dissent (?!).
- He was to slow to award Spain a scrum penalty.
- He didn't give a yellow card for a deliberate knock on.

This hardly constitutes evidence of complete daylight robbery and "one of the worst most bias performances ever seen in the history of rugby" to rank alongside Paddy O'Brien Fiji vs France 1999 World Cup, or Bryce Lawrence and Craig Joubert at the 2011 World Cup, or loads of George Clancy matches (for example Wales vs Argentina 2009) in terms of refereeing awfulness.

Nevertheless Spain have convinced themselves and many others who have hopped aboard a bandwagon of outrage that it is a fact Iordachescu single handedly cost them the game and their place at the World Cup. There are numerous figures in the game who almost certainly didn't watch the full game who are now asserting this with almost complete certainty.
Belgium vs. Spain - Rugby World Cup 2019 Europe Qualifier
Reality though is simply that Spain did not perform to the level they needed to. This explanation may not be as an exciting for the media or the Twitter mob but that is what happened.

In a match played on a narrow and muddy pitch on a freezing cold day. Belgium kept hold of possession far better, and exposed Spanish weaknesses, especially at scrum (which was the source of 5 penalties conceded) or in a lack of really effective heavy duty close quarter ball carriers (both elements of the game that are essential to winter rugby on heavy pitches), defended well and were deserved winners.

Spain should start to take more responsibility for their defeat. It was not the referee who was pushing them about at scrums or losing collisions, or who for the first 20 minutes of the second half could barely manage more than three phases without losing the ball, or missing penalty kicks at goal etc.

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