So this month Ireland have beaten South Africa, England have beaten Australia and Scotland have all but beaten New Zealand. Though the Irish and English victories were by handsome margins, one might argue that the Scottish performance was the most meritorious, given the quality of the opposition and the style in which Scotland played.
So often when Scotland have done well against any of the Southern Hemisphere Big Three, or indeed against England at Murrayfield, we have found ourselves praising a heroic defensive effort. On Saturday Gregor Townsend’s team took the game to the All Blacks from the start and came wonderfully close to snatching victory in brilliant style with the last play of the match.
It was a tribute to the quality of the Scottish play that the All Blacks seemed compelled to change their tactics in the second half, doing a lot of box-kicking.
This was the finest Scottish performance in years, and a magnificent match, probably better than anyone under the age of 30 has ever seen at Murrayfield.
Though Stuart Hogg deservedly got the man of the match award – a whisker ahead of Beauden Barrett whose tremendous covering tackle deprived Hogg and Scotland of the perfect story-book ending – there wasn’t a weak link in the Scottish side.
Moreover the manner in which they shrugged off a succession of injuries and the need for earlier-than-planned replacements was remarkable.
I confess that when New Zealand went 15-3 ahead with a quarter of the match remaining, I thought, “we’ve played very well, but that’s probably it”. One has after all seen Scotland hold a stronger team for an hour, only to have the game run away from them.
Instead we won the last 20 minutes 14-7 and the two tries weren’t the sort of consolation, so-called, ones that a team scores when the match is already lost.
Nobody could have grudged Scotland victory. If in the end the All Blacks just deserved their win, it would be because they had perhaps six chances to score tries and took three of them, while we had maybe ten and took two.
Still, if it wasn’t a famous victory, it was a famous day. Now, of course, they have it all to do again this afternoon, against an Australian side that will be smarting from their defeat at Twickenham, more exactly from the nature of that defeat, for it was a match in which everything from refereeing decisions to the bounce of the ball went against them. Anyone who thought that the introduction of television match officials and video replays was going to take argument about decisions out of the game was a starry-eyed optimist. Controversy reigns even more fiercely than it used to. This may be because we used to be able to accept that the referee as the sole judge of play might make the occasional mistake, whereas now there’s a presumption that the correct decision should always be made – while in truth it isn’t.
Indeed more voices may mean worse confusion. There is also the question of the proper role of the TMO. When this was first introduced, the assumption was that he intervened only at the request of the referee. But now it is quite common for the TMO to draw the referee’s attention to something that the referee hasn’t spotted or didn’t perhaps consider of any moment.
Fair enough, you may say. However, there are times when the TMO stays buttoned-up. Take the moment when Kieran Read, lying on the ground, knocked the ball out of Jonny Gray’s hands just in front of the New Zealand posts. The referee’s view was obscured; he thought Jonny had knocked the ball on. The TMO’s suspicions were apparently not aroused; he stayed mute.
Nevertheless , given the circumstances, he might reasonably have suggested to the referee that they should take a look at the incident. Had he done so, it would surely have been a penalty to Scotland and a yellow card for the All Black captain. I am not saying he should have done so. My point is that the introduction of TMOs hasn’t improved the consistency of decision-making.
It has, however, contributed to a deterioration in the behaviour of players who are now quick to badger the referee, urging him to consult the TMO. There was a conspicuous and – to my mind – disgraceful example at Twickenham. Australia seemed to have scored a try, and Owen Farrell leaped around, flapping his arms, and demanding that the referee should call in the TMO. As it happened, Farrell was right; there was obstruction, arguably at least. But the manner in which he put pressure on the referee was shocking. There is too much of this sort of thing, and it’s getting worse. The only remedy is to penalise any player who goes beyond a quiet, polite request or suggestion that perhaps the referee should ask his colleague to take a look. And only the captain should be permitted to do that. (Yes, I know Farrell was the acting England captain by then, Hartley having been taken off; but his request was neither quiet nor polite; he was trying to bully the referee.)