What I learned about justice while watching the All Blacks take on the Lions

The rugby referee, unavoidably, now adjudicates as much as he officiates.

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I was at Lord’s two and a half hours before the start of play on the third day of the first Test against South Africa. I cannot claim that my early arrival related to my professional duties as a BBC cricket broadcaster. In truth, it was the only way I could watch the deciding Test of the British and Irish Lions v New Zealand rugby series without being late for the cricket. My colleagues had the same idea, and many cricket journalists gathered around a big screen in the media centre.

How remarkable it is, the power of mystery. When we watch cricket, the game we all know and most of us played, there is no romantic veil. In a cricketing context, we understand the threshold of assumed competence: given the countless hours of practice, we know that many shots, however impressive they look from the boundary, are routine. In cricket, we are not easily transported to a state of wonder.

When the sport is beyond our immediate knowledge or understanding, the thrills come more readily. How did he make that tackle? How do they find one last moment of resolve and energy when the tank is empty? At the end of all three Lions v New Zealand Tests, I felt deeply moved. I know several professional rugby players who feel the same way when they watch Test cricket. Sometimes, it pays not to unweave the rainbow.

Our huddle of cricket commentators were also more indulgent when it came to the art of commentary. With the match evenly poised deep into the final quarter, the former Lion Scott Quinnell offered this expert summary on Sky Sports: “The next seven or eight minutes are going to be crucial!” (Pronunciation: “crooooshiaall”.)

Deconstructed, this comes very close to meaning: “At the end of the match, the team with the most points will be the winner.” Yet, hearing it delivered with a lilting, mellifluous, southern-Welsh accent, coming deep from the soul of a huge former back-row forward, we cheered him on. Well said, Scott, absolutely right.

There was high controversy in the dying moments of the Lions match. Initially, the French referee Romain Poite awarded New Zealand a penalty that probably would have led to their victory. After representations by the Lions, Poite consulted with the video referee and downgraded his penalty decision to a scrum. The Lions survived the scare and tied the match and the series.

But did the whole tour, as it felt at the time, hinge on that single refereeing decision? I’ve now watched the last minutes of play several times and it makes for intriguing viewing. It is certainly true that New Zealand have an argument that the penalty should have stood. But it is also true that Kieran Read, the All Blacks captain, could have been penalised during the same play for disrupting the Lions’ catcher. Wind the clock back another few seconds and it seems possible that Read was ahead of the kicker at the restart – which could have given the Lions an attacking platform with two minutes to go.

If those observations sound like the biased bleating of a Lions supporter, let me balance the ledger. In the final move of injury time, Elliot Daly – who helped push the All Blacks into touch and hence end the match as a tie – might have entered the ruck from an illegal position, a few feet from his own try line.

Let’s pause for breath and recap. Four decisions by the referee, or non-decisions, could have swung the result of the match: penalising New Zealand for being ahead of the kicker, New Zealand for interfering with the catcher, the Lions for being off-side and the Lions for entering the ruck from the side.

The remarkable thing is that these all happened in the final three minutes of play. In a sport in which, at any given moment, a large number of strong and fast athletes are brutally bumping into each other at high speed, the potential for arguments about the rules borders on the unfathomable.

All teams could be penalised, in defence or attack, at almost any moment. When we watch rugby, we subconsciously suspend this knowledge.

What, in that context, constitutes good refereeing? It revolves, surely, around officiating in such a way that the “right” team wins. The rugby referee, unavoidably, now adjudicates as much as he officiates. He must curate the rules in such a way that the crowd enjoys a spectacle, the players loosely follow some kind of code and no one feels that he has reversed natural justice.

That is why there is an unwritten rule among referees that the benefit of the doubt goes to the attacking team. The All Blacks, who try to outplay the opposition as well as merely outscore them, understand this well. With the marked exception of a tantrum by their replacement scrum-half, New Zealand generally didn’t moan about the illegal play by the Lions that led to a crucial try in the second Test. The Lions had made a clean line break and therefore “deserved” the opportunity to impede the All Blacks’ defence illegally.

It sounds ridiculous, at a time when people want sport to follow scientific rules, but the logic is unavoidable: watching slow-motion replays about a single decision does not necessarily take us any closer to understanding “justice” in rugby. We can only fall back on a wider sense of feel or intuition.

Two evenly matched teams played with daring and desire at the limit of their physical and psychological capacity. We were richly entertained and reminded of the heights that athletes can reach in the pursuit of victory. That was the real result.

Forget the downgraded penalty for New Zealand. The series was tied and that feels about right. This isn’t very precise as a way of analysing sport, but it gets closer to the truth than an earnest inquisition about a disputed penalty.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article appears in the 13 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions