DEREK FLYNN/Marlborough Express
Hell, even I'm embarrassed now by the dream ride being afforded the All Blacks. Maybe the wildly eccentric Peter de Villiers actually has a point.Call off the judicial Rottweilers!
Goodness knows Graham Henry's men don't need any help beating their rivals, the form they're in this year, and the confidence and efficiency they're playing with.But they certainly got some on Saturday night from otherwise exemplary South African referee Jonathan Kaplan in Bledisloe II in Christchurch.
It was a special match for All Black loosehead Tony Woodcock as he became the most capped prop of all time with his 67th test appearance. But it was nearly a night of notoriety for the part-time farmer from Kaukapakapa as he committed a second-half indiscretion that should have seen him sinbinned.Quite why Kaplan refused to reach for the yellow card isn't certain, as Woodcock brutally thumped Wallaby hooker Saia Fainfgaa from behind at the back of a ruck. But the experienced official's lack of a response to what was a borderline piece of play – at best - by Woodcock does nothing to refute the popular notion that the All Blacks are some sort of protected species in the eyes of the game's referees.
What's gone on – or in last Saturday's case hasn't gone on – with regards to referees and the judicial process through this year's tests should not detract from the All Blacks' impressive start to the test year.They have been magnificent as they've peeled off seven consecutive victories to take their test winning streak to 13 and now head to Johannesburg with a 10th Tri-Nations title all but theirs.
But so far this international season the All Blacks have had quite a legup courtesy of some hardline rulings by match officials in tests. Ireland were reduced to 14 men early in New Plymouth when Jamie Heaslip was red-carded, and played 10 minutes with 13 when Ronan O'Gara also copped a yellow.
In Hamilton, the Welsh lost fullback Lee Byrne for 10 minutes, and late in the piece Sam Whitelock and Gavin Thomas were both sent to the bin for nothing more than handbags at dawn.In Auckland, the Springboks lost Bakkies Botha for a crucial 10 minutes and then for another nine weeks when a separate offence was picked up by the citing commissioner. In Wellington, Bok lock Danie Rossouw was despatched to the bin for an innocuous tap on Richie McCaw – and again the All Blacks made their undermanned foes pay.
And in the judicial room the Boks also saw Jean de Villiers banned two weeks for a dangerous tackle – the same offence for which Jaque Fourie (four weeks) and Quade Cooper (two) were also pinged following the South Africa-Australia match in Brisbane.Then, finally, in Bledisloe I in Melbourne, Wallaby wing Drew Mitchell received two quite pathetic yellow cards that earned him an automatic ejection, though All Blacks prop Owen Franks also saw yellow in that clash.
In total thus far the All Blacks' opponents have received six yellow and two red cards, against just two yellows for the New Zealanders.No All Black has even yet had to make a trip to the judiciary.So, what does that tell us?Certainly that the All Blacks are disciplined. That they play hard but fair. That their technique is pretty sound. And that teams under pressure tend to commit more dubious acts than teams creating the pressure.I would have backed that school of thought until Saturday. Then when Woodcock came thundering in, a ball nowhere in sight, and struck Faingaa like a missile in the small of the back, well it seemed like the choir boys had finally erred.
That was when Kaplan did himself, and the game, a disservice.He swallowed his yellow. And merely issued another lecture to an All Blacks side that had already been warned.What must the Boks have made of that watching from back in the republic? You can only imagine their disgust.
That Kaplan – ironically a South African – felt disinclined to punish the All Blacks for an act of ill-discipline was a major mistake, to my way of thinking.I understand where he was coming from. Yellow cards were becoming a blight on the test game. They were heavily influencing matches. He'd made a clear call to only brandish if necessary.But surely this was one time when it was. A referee needed to be seen to hold the All Blacks to the same account as their opponents had been in the six tests hitherto.What was possibly even more astounding was that Woodcock also survived the citing commissioner's eagle eye.
OK, Faingaa wasn't badly injured, and you could make a case that it was just a clearout of a guy on the wrong side of a ruck.But, given the standard that had been established in every other test this year, Woodcock's indiscretion appeared much more than that. It would seem Paddy O'Brien has some more explaining to do.