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Game of infamy as All Blacks beat SA
Game of infamy as All Blacks beat SA
(Assault on referee a blot on world rugby)
10 Aug 2002
[TRI]
New Zealand 30 South Africa 23 (Tri-Nations)
Kings Park, Durban
Saturday, 10 August 2002 (1:05am Sunday, 11 August NZT)
Referee(s): David McHugh (Ireland), Chris White (England). And the world may never forget it!

"Quite apart from all these things, the game was remarkable simply as a game of rugby."

Kings Park, Durban, Saturday 10 August 2002? The above quote is not a bad description if one considers all the drama in this game not directly related to matchplay. But it isn't.

It is Lindsay Knight's description in his book "The Geriatrics" (1986) of events on Saturday, 12 September 1981, the third and deciding test between South Africa and New Zealand at Eden Park, Auckland: the match remembered as the "flour-bomb test" at the end of the most controversial rugby tour ever of this country.

While not approaching anything like the scale of that game, one could see some parallels in the All Blacks 30-23 victory over South Africa at Durban on Saturday. Both games are likely to be remembered more for the bitterness they caused rather than the merits of the play.

Both were crucial games for the participating teams, in front of capacity crowds. Both came down to a few points between the teams (although Saturday's game was arguably closer fought for the full 80 minutes), both involved disputed refereeing (Clive Norling in 1981, David McHugh in 2002) both were disrupted by outside agents (political protestors within and above the ground 21 years ago and an act of protest by a spectator at the weekend) and both had participants in the game assaulted by said agents (All Black prop Gary Knight by a falling flour bomb and referee McHugh by the foolhardy supporter. Unlike Knight however, McHugh was unable to participate further).

Both too, had their television coverage disrupted (protestors attempting to cut off the viewing audiences in 1981 and a big black descending horizontal line on Sky TV disturbing much of the second half in Saturday's game, at least in Dunedin). The only thing missing from 1981, much to the relief of generations of rugby fans of both countries, were the political issues.

The game may, in the years ahead, be remembered more for an act of gross stupidity by a single South African supporter, which seriously injured referee McHugh and led to his replacement. Of this appalling incident, more to come, although the bad taste of the affair may well last for some time. At least, the referee was conscious and upright when he left the ground, but no referee should have to feel physically at risk from calling a game.

To the credit of both teams, they managed to compose themselves in the aftermath and continued to produce one of the closest, most tense and dramatic games in the history of South Africa and New Zealand's rugby rivalry.

The South Africans now need to hold the Wallabies off from a bonus point effort at Johannesburg in order for the All Blacks to take the Tri-Nations trophy: a possible consolation after their heartbreaking 16-14 loss to the Wallabies at Sydney last weekend.

The scene was set for a great encounter from the start. Kings Park was in fine shape with the Saturday afternoon 50,000 strong crowd packed in. The ground was well-prepared and both teams were well-received. The anthems were sung to a very high standard and the All Blacks haka was responded to by the South African team marching forward and linking arms with support from a dancing group of African warriors behind them.

However much one might dispute the appropriateness of opposing teams marching forward to confront the haka, it certainly made enjoyable viewing, although Sky TV didn't seem to show the South African's response as much as it could have.

This correspondent also overheard another Dunedin spectator observe that the South African team should perform a haka-like movement themselves. Is this a challenge the home team might take up in future? It would be good to see, particularly as more African and Coloured players join their European compatriots in the national side. There is precedent, too, from New Zealand, New South Wales, Fiji, Tongan and Samoan sides over the years, along with South African teams, at least in 1928.

After all this, the game kicked off and while the All Blacks seemed to have the initial advantage of momentum, it was the South Africans who scored first, with Dean Hall and Werner Kreef combining to upset the All Blacks defence, putting Neil de Kock in for the try, which Pretorius converted.

This was a shock to many watching back in New Zealand and it was with considerable relief that they saw Andrew Mehrtens sweep back on the attack, putting Leon MacDonald in for the try. Mehrtens missed the conversion, leaving the South Africans ahead 7-5.

The All Blacks continued to go on attack and after 18 minutes Tana Umaga made a burst which was halted by a high tackle by Marius Joubert, one of several such incidents during the game. The whistle blew for what initially appeared to be a penalty, but as the camera pulled back, it was evident it was in fact a penalty try, a decision which even some New Zealand fans weren't entirely confident about. But Mehrtens converted and the All Blacks now led 12-7.

Yet, South Africa were by no means content to let this rest, with some attacking play inside the All Blacks' 22 putting wing Breyton Paulse in. But unfortunately for him, which the TV coverage picked up before Paulse performed his stylistic celebratory flip-flop, the home side had been pulled up for obstruction. Much of the Kings Park crowd initially thought it was a try, also. Amidst the disappointment of this, one wonders whether some of the more aggressive supporters were enduring a build-up of frustration which was to boil over with disastrous consequences later.

Andre Pretorius then came into the action, landing a penalty goal, closing the margin to 12-10, before running down the sideline, kicking ahead and gathering the ball to go in for a fine try. His conversion made the score 17-10, a situation that was still reversable, with a bit of effort from the All Blacks.

They responded. Umaga went on the attack, unloading to Doug Howlett, who scored under the posts for Mehrtens' conversion. The All Blacks had tied the game up at 17-17, with four minutes to go.

They continued to press on the South Africans line, but a chance to pull ahead with a penalty quickly fell apart, when referee McHugh reversed his call, giving the South Africans the chance to kick for touch.

Spectators present at the ground and watching elsewhere had been treated to possibly one of the most changeable periods of play ever seen in international rugby. The All Blacks had an advantage in terms of territory and possession, but the South Africans were challenging well.

The passing and support play of both teams had been commendable. This correspondent had almost forgotten what a test match in daylight on a fine day could be like. There was literally nothing between the teams on the scoreboard. And it was still only half-time.

So the second half kicked off, with both teams seeking to break the impasse. Two minutes into the play, South Africa made a burst but referee McHugh blew the whistle for a South African infringement. Again, the commentators seemed a little unsure of the accuracy of this call, with the crowd equally unhappy. A scrum was called.

And then, of course, all mayhem broke loose.

This correspondent's head was down briefly when things started to erupt but it quickly appeared on screen that several players were on the ground. Was it a collapsed scrum? Or a brawl? After all, there were several flare-ups during the game. Either way it appeared that the referee was down at the bottom of it all. It's known to happen, of course, with Derek Bevan in 1986 being one example.

A disturbed thought had flashed through this correspondent's mind that one of the South African players had completely lost his temper and lashed out at McHugh. But as two match officials pulled an unfamiliar face in green jersey and blue jeans from the melee, it was clear this was something else, namely a spectator had invaded the ground and directly attacked the referee.

As security guards came along to back up the two other officials, this thug continued to resist, evidently either too angry or too under the influence of some substance to calm down. With his mouth bleeding, he was led from the ground by officials looking as stern as it was possible to be. The replay was almost unbelievable to watch. The lout had run on to the ground and tackled the referee, with stunned players defending McHugh and attempting to pull his attacker off. But the referee had been forced down to the ground for some time.

Worried commentators remarked that McHugh was not in good shape, being treated for what appeared to be an arm injury. He was taken off the field with what was diagnosed as a dislocated shoulder. While referees getting injured during matches is not without precedent (New Zealand referee Pat Murphy had to be replaced during a test in the 1960s), replacement through assault is another matter entirely. This correspondent will have more to say on this in due course. During the next 10 minutes as the players regrouped, English touch judge Chris White went off the field to get a microphone fitted and possibly for consultations before taking over the whistle. It was a far from happy situation, but when the scrum finally went down, the game quickly settled into a routine again.

Mehrtens kicked another penalty, putting the All Blacks back in the lead but this was quickly negated by Pretorius responding in kind. The latter then executed a well-judged drop kick to put the South Africans ahead. It was 23-20 and the struggle went on remorselessly.

Of course, for many viewers back in New Zealand, coverage of the second half was getting increasingly bad, with a horizontal line moving down the screen distorting the picture. One large screen in Dunedin was switched off and on twice to see whether it was anything at this end, but it soon transpired that something was amiss with the technology in Durban. So viewers at times had to be content with a camera angle from the end of the ground and ground-level camera work at other times, with the colour getting badly distorted on occasion.

With the closeness of the game, the unpredicatable nature of both sides and the attack on the referee, the technical difficulties were another pressure for television watchers, adding to the tension.

With 17 minutes to go, Mehrtens levelled the score up again. Seven minutes later, Aaron Mauger took the ball to cross the line to put the All Blacks back in the lead, with Mehrtens adding the conversion. It was now a seven-point game, with everything to play for.

So when the South Africans were awarded a penalty, with a few minutes to go, it was understandable some might think they should go for the try. But their rationale was simple: to close the gap and aim for a match-winning try. It quickly became academic, though, with them missing what looked like a relatively simple kick. The South Africans were left considering their options and it was up to the All Blacks to defend, without infringing.

To their immense credit, the visitors managed to pull it off, defending their line. As if the match hadn't been dramatic enough, the on-screen clock, showing at least five minutes to go, was superceded by substitute referee White's ruling that there were in fact only three and a half minutes left. One wondered whether the South Africans would have any reason to complain about that.

But at the final whistle, the All Blacks had won 30-23 and both teams managed to shake hands sportingly. Vast relief accompanied the win on this side of the Indian Ocean, but plenty of viewers were still disturbed by the attack on referee McHugh.

Both captains went through the aftermatch interviews professionally, focusing on the game. Reuben Thorne, for his part, said that the attack on the referee had been unfortunate but quickly stressed the players focused on getting right back into things. Corne Krige equally focused on the rugby, giving credit to his team and the All Blacks, and how the team weren't able to come through at the end.

The All Blacks certainly did take their chances and were able to offset a fine South African effort to come away with the win. They now have a chance to win the Tri-Nations and they have did almost everything they could in this match to bring that about. It was a pulsating, enjoyable encounter with the All Blacks defence coming through at the end to justify all the attacking play that served them so well on a well-prepared Kings Park, to give them their first win there since 1996 and only their second international win in Durban since 1928.

But somehow one couldn't escape the impression that players and interviewers alike were deeply shaken by what had occurred shortly after halftime. And with good reason.

Referees are not popular at the best of times. This correspondent was on the other side of WestpacTrust Stadium in 2000 when debris was thrown at the referee after awarding a last-second penalty which cost the All Blacks the game and the Bledisloe Cup. Norman Maxwell had to step in to prevent anything else being thrown at that time.

What happened in the 42nd minute of Saturday's game, however, was not only an unfortunate release of steam: it was morally indefensible. The individual who assaulted and injured referee McHugh is reportedly facing a life ban from games in the future. That is a punishment that fits the crime, although the South African legal system reportedly will have further things to say on the matter.

Pitch invasions in sporting codes, including cricket and soccer as well as rugby, have plenty of precedent, last weekend's All Black-Wallabies game being a case in point. George Gregan was tackled on the field by a spectator during this year's Super 12 at Rotorua and the incident in Wellington two years ago has already been mentioned. Were Saturday's incident not so serious, it would be farcical and many, understandably, saw that side during the game, probably more out of shock than anything. This correspondent sympathised with that reaction, too.

But of course, it was a deadly serious matter.

Whatever the real or imagined provocation, this action is absolutely inexcusable, contrary to the spirit and law of the game, a blot on the sporting code of rugby union. Above all, in carrying out his assault while wearing his own South African jersey, thus identifying himself with the players on the field, the attacker is a blight on the justified pride that generations of South Africans have taken in their rugby prowess. He is nothing less than a disgrace to his country.

Authorities around the rugby world will now be looking at their ground security at all levels of the game with added vigilance, which has implications for the relationship between players, officials and the public. That this individual was able to get over to the players at all was a matter of concern but that he was able to commit a violent assault before being dragged off is appalling.

Referees too, may be questioning again whether it is worth putting themselves forward if this is what they may have to face. The old tongue-in-cheek saying "who would be a referee?" now has a particularly bitter ring to it. It is fortunate that the injury to David McHugh was not more serious. But it was bad enough.

There are ways and means of protesting refereeing decisions, on and off the field. In former times, the convention was one accepted the decision and got on with the game. A captain's or manager's report might raise a few issues, then and now. In the interests of natural justice, players are more inclined to dispute calls in our era and of course spectators have never been averse to doing so.

But Saturday's incident could well result in some serious soul-searching within the game about how far anyone on the field or the sidelines can take legitimate dissent. By any reasonable, intelligent, rational analysis, this fool in Durban grossly exceeded any bounds of propriety. Will referees now be less tolerant of backchat on the field? Or will they be less inclined to award legitimate penalties for fear of physical retribution?

This, of course, may sound like a huge overreaction, giving "September 11" overtones to a scuffle in a rugby game. Bizarre though it may seem, though, these questions may have to be faced in the weeks and months ahead.

Despite a few flare-ups during the game and last week's loss to the Wallabies, the All Blacks can leave South Africa generally with their heads high, restoring some of the ill feeling after the confrontation involving a youth team some weeks ago. The South African team go to Johannesburg next week, knowing they may finish last in the Tri-Nations but at least, having put up a creditable showing against their greatest rivals.They will need to be watched ahead of next year's World Cup.

But the spirit of South African rugby may take some time to recover from this atrocious incident. No one would seriously suggest all rugby followers in that country should be lumped in with the unsporting actions of one spectator and indeed the fraternity have evidently stamped down on his stupid actions with justified firmness.

Yet, in carrying out his attack on an official in the name of South African rugby, this unmitigated oaf has brought shame upon the reputation of a good sport. Rugby deserves better.

All rugby players, supporters and officials should now unite to ensure such an incident is never repeated. The lasting good of the game is now at stake.

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Let us know what you think!

A wonderful win by the boys in Black which all but assures us of getting the Tri-Nations trophy back, as Lucas would say, Brilliant!

As for the unmitigated oaf who tackled the ref, I thought that sort of thing only happened in South American soccer matches, I guess not.

Supposedly this article has been viewed 2187 times since we bothered to start counting*.
(Although it could have just been on the Reload button doing some serious ego padding!)