Nigel Owens will referee the Rugby World Cup final, or will he?
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Rugby World Cup final referee Nigel Owens has form with both the All Blacks and Wallabies.
OPINION: World Rugby confirmed the news that everyone had been expecting since All Blacks selector Grant Fox let the ref out of the bag. Richie McCaw will helm the World Cup final. His assistant at Twickenham on Sunday will be Nigel Owens, the experienced Welsh official.
OK, so Owens, aged 44, a veteran of 67 test matches, has been officially named as the man in charge, but it is an appointment that should put joy into the heart of every All Blacks supporter and fear in the soul of the Wallabies. World Rugby has gravely blundered by giving the final to Owens, a man who has serious form with both New Zealand and Australia.
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Referee Nigel Owens shows he’s not afraid to send All Blacks players to the sin bin.
The All Blacks love the man. Fox presaged the announcement by saying: “Nigel is clearly the best referee in the world – he’s demonstrated that … Like all referees, he will make the odd error. But one of the key things he does, apart from communicating incredibly well with players, is that he lets the breakdown breathe. And that’s really important. If you want to get a good contest and spectacle.”
Of course Fox thinks that Owens communicates incredibly well with the players. The Welshman has a respect for McCaw that at times in the past has bordered on sycophancy, like when he shook the All Blacks leader’s hand twice in the immediate aftermath of one test match. Given his track record it is hard to imagine Owens keeping McCaw onside on Sunday.
Owens refereed the previous match between these two teams when the All Blacks thrashed Australia 41-13 at Eden Park. The way he spoke to both captains that day was remarkable. When McCaw made a complaint, Owens said: “I’ll have a look at the next one, OK.”
When Australia captain Stephen Moore asked for clarification on two separate occasions, Owens said: “Back you go” and “Off you go”.
In that match Conrad Smith twice played the jumper in the air and did not receive a yellow card. In a previous match against England refereed by Owens, Ma’a Nonu committed two professional fouls, pulling back James Haskell off the ball and preventing England from taking a quick drop-out. Owens did not produce a card.
But of course Louis Picamoles got a yellow card for what amounted to little more than a facial rub of New Zealand’s captain in the quarterfinal of this World Cup. New Zealand were in danger of running up 70 points that day. Their rugby was quite beautiful, but it is not Owens job to stand and admire. He let a couple of things go that he had no business ignoring.
There are many sides who will say they dread Owens being put in charge of the All Blacks. Australia will say it. France will say it. England will say it, not forgetting the try Owens awarded to Aaron Cruden at Twickenham almost exactly a year ago when he failed to ground the ball over the line. Ireland will say it.
The men in green long remember the end to that fateful match when Owens coached McCaw back onside and then penalised the Ireland player for not staying on his feet as he fell into the hole that McCaw had left. It was a quite extraordinary piece of reffing.
Now some may argue that McCaw has earned such mana and I have much sympathy for that point of view. McCaw’s humility in public and utter dignity on the rare occasions that New Zealand have lost mean that many officials are almost proud to have refereed the man.
I have argued for a couple of years now that McCaw’s greatest contribution to his team since the last World Cup is his captaincy. He is a colossal leader off the pitch. And once the game is under way McCaw’s influence on referees is undeniable. Even staunch Republicans are unlikely to diss the Queen on the steps of Buckingham Palace and McCaw commands similar respect once he is on a rugby pitch.
But it is a huge problem for Michael Cheika and one that I am quite sure he is aware of. One of the biggest problems he had when he took over was the lack of leadership and respect in the team. There has been the ‘toxic’ era of Robbie Deans and the Di Patston farce of Ewen Mackenzie’s time as coach.
The rugby team has had as much continuity as Australia’s government who have had five prime ministers since 2011. Since the last World Cup the Wallabies have been captained by James Horwill, Will Genia, David Pocock, Ben Mowen, Michael Hooper, Nathan Sharpe, Stephen Moore and Dean Mumm, in no particular order. The contrast with the All Blacks continuity in their chain of command could scarcely be greater.
Cheika has brought back respect by making Moore, who is old school, his leader. The appointment has come with a huge upside, but none of Australia’s captains have been particularly skilled in the art of talking round referees. From Pocock’s wide-eyed amazement to Moore’s polite nag, they lack Richie’s mana.
And they really, really lack it with Owens. Australia lost to Argentina when Owens was in charge and they couldn’t score a point against the All Blacks in 2012. When playing outside Australia under Owens, the Wallabies have not won in six attempts. The Green and Gold website calculates that Australia scores an average of 10 fewer points than under other refs and concedes almost four more penalties than the opposition. Cheika’s biggest challenge this week is to make plans for Nigel.
In contrast the All Blacks have won 12 matches in a row with Owens in charge. Or should I say Richie.
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