There was collective failure from the officials in Sunday’s Autumn Nations Cup final, which robbed France of a famous victory, writes ANDRE-PIERRE CRONJE.
On a cold Sunday afternoon in southwest London, an English side composed predominantly of the players who contested last year’s World Cup final, lined up against a French team averaging two caps per player. The Autumn Nations Cup trophy was on the line.
An ongoing dispute between the French Rugby Federation (FFR) and France’s club rugby owners meant that many, if not all, of France’s first-choice players were not available for selection. Playing at home and against an inexperienced opposition, England were overwhelming favourites.
Clearly no one told the French.
Fabien Galthie’s Les Bleus side came out and played like men possessed. The influence of former Welsh defensive coach Shaun Edwards was clear to see as France dominated England in contact and at the breakdown. A 14-phase defensive effort inches from the French tryline in the twilight of the first half was all too reminiscent of the Bok’s World Cup final effort.
England for their part looked rudderless on attack. The scars of last year’s World Cup are clearly still present in an England team trying to mimic the Boks’ kick-orientated, territory-based gameplan – one they are not suited to. It’s clear that Rassie Erasmus casts a long shadow.
It is deeply regrettable, then, that the focus of the game has not been about the rugby but rather the refereeing decisions (or lack thereof) by Irish referee Andrew Brace and his team.
With less than two minutes to go in the game, France led by seven points with England on the attack. Brace then missed two blatant knock-ons by Billy Vunipola and Owen Farrell in the lead-up to what resulted in a game-equalling score for the men in white.
Had either knock-on been spotted, France would have only needed to win their own scrum feed and boot the ball into touch to win the tournament. As it happened, England went on to win the game in extra time courtesy of the boot of Farrell. France, to put it bluntly, were robbed – of the game and of the trophy.
That two such obvious knock-ons were missed within a minute of each other is unforgivable. In the modern game the referee has the help of two assistant referees and a TMO. That those four professionals could not see what the commentators, players and every rugby fan not wearing white could, is astounding.
Earlier in the match referee and TMO combined well to award France a penalty after Sam Underhill had kicked the ball out of French scrumhalf Baptiste Couilloud’s hand. The infringement had initially been missed by Brace, and TMO Ben Whitehouse did well to spot it and communicate it to the referee.
Indeed, 10 minutes prior to Vunipola and Farrell’s respective knock-ons Brace had missed another England error, this time by replacement flank Ben Earl. Thankfully, Whitehouse once again intervened.
So how was it that this seemingly effective line of communication between referee and TMO broke down so spectacularly when it mattered? And where were the other two members of the refereeing team?
It was a collective failure by four men simply not up to standard. In the biggest moment, they choked. It would be unfair to lay the blame solely on Brace, and some of the online abuse he received since has been reprehensible. We are all human and there is no malice in making mistakes. However, there must also be accountability for those mistakes.
This was the final of an international tournament, not a Varsity Cup game. To have France lose because of a series of rank amateurish refereeing errors is not only inexcusable, but it is an embarrassment to the sport.
One has to feel for the French, but also for the neutrals. In what has been a very flat tournament, fans were deprived of seeing a David vs Goliath style upset in one of the most exciting games of the year.
While the rugby world still debates how to attract new fans and secure the future of the sport, I would humbly submit that having tournaments decided by refereeing failures may be an area to address first.