We’re entering the business end of the Super Rugby Aotearoa season with the beginning of Round 8, and it began with a trip to Waikato for the table-topping Crusaders to take on the winless Chiefs. The first half went according to the script for Chiefs matches in this tournament, with Tom Sanders and Will Jordan both crossing for tries in the opening 15 minutes. The Chiefs worked their way into the game and after a strong run by Pita Gus Sowakula, Lachlan Boshier crossed for a try, Damian McKenzie kicking the conversion and a penalty soon after to cut the deficit to 2. However with a minute left in the half, a deliberate knock-on from Shaun Stevenson saw him sent to the bin and allowed the Crusaders to kick to the corner, from which a catch and drive put captain Codie Taylor over to make it 10-17 at the break.
While the 3ʳᵈ quarter was one for the kickers – McKenzie kicking 3 penalties and Mo’unga 1 to keep a narrow lead – but the final quarter started in controversial fashion as Sevu Reece was awarded a try despite many thinking that Quinten Strange had knocked on in the build-up. The Chiefs continued to fight, but the Crusaders scored a 5ᵗʰ try through Leicester Fainga’anuku, before holding on to secure the double over Warren Gatland’s side with a 19-32 victory.
Warren Gatland is a hugely experienced coach, but right now I think that he is the wrong man to be leading the Chiefs. The former Wales head coach has spent the last 12 years coaching in the Northern Hemisphere and will be coaching the Lions on their tour of South Africa next year, and I can’t help but think that all this time away from New Zealand is proving costly now.
It was almost as if there were 2 different Chiefs teams taking part in this game. At times they ran the ball like you would expect from a New Zealand side and they looked dangerous. But then the Chiefs of every other week would return and they would start kicking possession away, usually with aimless kicks downfield that the likes of Richie Mo’unga, Will Jordan and George Bridge were only too happy to run back with interest. With a back line that includes Anton Lienert-Brown and Damian McKenzie, that’s a waste of their talent.
Watching this team, it feels like Gatland is trying to stick to the same gameplan he used with Wales of kicking downfield (but keeping the ball in play) and relying on his team’s superior fitness and dogged defence to get the win. Unfortunately, that is just inviting too much pressure from exceptionally skilled athletes and they just aren’t able to deal with it. It may be too late for this tournament, but I think that Gatland needs to look at changing up his tactics if he wants the Chiefs to have any success during his tenure.
One of the players to benefit most from the moments when the Chiefs played running rugby today was Pita Gus Sowakula. The Chiefs number 8 did not have the best of days in their opener against the Highlanders, but has quietly gone about his business since then. In this game, with the Chiefs playing a more open game at times, the Fijian came alive. Though he only managed 35 metres with the ball in hand, his 16 carries were extremely positive and played a huge role in putting his team on the front foot (such as for Boshier’s try) or getting the team out of jail (such as a defensive scrum 5m out, where he carried to the edge of the 22 to take the pressure off his kickers.
On this performance, I can certainly see why Fijian head coach Vern Cotter is interested in bringing Sowakula into the squad as in a team like that which looks to play running rugby, he will do a great job of giving them a strong a secure base to build off. Hopefully even if Warren Gatland doesn’t make big changes to his gameplan for their final game, he will look to use Sowakula as a carrier much more.
A grey area
Controversy reigned in this match regarding the awarding of Sevu Reece’s try to help the Crusaders pull away on the hour. And to be honest, I’m still not sure if I agree with the ruling or not.
Will Jordan broke through the Chiefs defence just inside the Chiefs 22 and offloaded to replacement lock Quinten Strange as he was snagged from behind. Strange juggled the ball, which went to ground and bounced up perfectly for the onrushing Sevu Reece, who took it beneath the posts. Referee Ben O’Keeffe went to the TMO and the two of them, along with the 2 assistant referees came to an agreement that there was no knock-on by Strange and that the try should stand.
Now, let’s try to break down what happened to the ball during this and the arguments for and against this being a try.
- First things first, the ball ends up behind Strange but that is due to his momentum carrying him on. Relative to the field, the ball goes forwards – therefore, a knock-on.
- However, the last touch from Strange is clearly a backwards swat at the ball, so though the ball itself has gone forwards, it has come backwards out of the hand – therefore not a knock-on. This is what the officials based their decision on, though the commentators chose to ignore this while they moaned about the decision.
This all comes down to a matter of physics, which led to a change in the interpretation of the laws. When a player passes the ball when standing still, it will go in the direction they pass. However, when they are running at speed, their momentum will also still be on the ball, which leads to the ball continuing to some degree in the direction the player was running as well as the direction they passed. For this reason, a player can legitimately pass backwards, but the ball still go forwards relative to the pitch.
This led to a change in the interpretation of forward passes that if the ball went forward it was still a legal pass as long as it came out of the hands backwards. By making his last touch a backwards swat, Strange effectively made it a pass that went to ground, so I can fully understand why the officials made the decision they did and would probably say they made the right call.
However, I think we all know that if a fumble like this happened in the middle of the pitch and not immediately preceding a try, this is getting called a knock-on 99% of the time, along with a number of other fumbles that seem to come backwards out of the hand. It is a grey area and I don’t know how to get around it without judging forward passes and knock-ons by the movement of the ball relative to the pitch without any account for momentum, which would force everyone to pass much deeper , making it much harder to hit the gap and take an offload to break through the defence.
What do you think? Would you have given the try?