The Science of Sport: Rugby World Cup: New Zealand’s drought ends and rugby’s referee problemPosted by SCRRS Website Committee on November 17th, 2011
Written by Ross Tucker, PhD, Science of Sport
So 24 years of waiting is over for New Zealand, who beat France 8-7 in a pulsating and perhaps unexpectedly competitive Rugby World Cup Final today. It may have been the lowest scoring final ever played, but it was suspenseful and adventurous, certainly more than the previous two finals. France produced a performance worthy of the showpiece match of the tournament, having come into it with two losses and the anticipation of a blowout victory to New Zealand. Rather, it was France who played the adventurous rugby, and only some ineffectiveness in attack and New Zealand’s resolute defending prevented them from winning their first title.
Instead, New Zealand won their second, but it was significant in that they have been, for the most part, the best team going into each of the six World Cup tournaments, sometimes by a large margin. Having failed to win the World Cup on five occasions despite being the favorites had earned New Zealand the tag of “chokers”, a team that peaked between World Cups but failed to deliver when it mattered. Two of those famous defeats came at the hands of France (in 1999 and 2007) and so when this French team stood firm and began to control the match following a second half try that brought the score back to 8-7, a blanket of anxiety settled over Eden Park in Auckland.
Choking vs panic
There were times when New Zealand appeared close to panic in this final – they were flustered, made unforced errors, chose poor tactical options and generally seemed to be hanging on and defending a one-point lead with desire rather than application. At this point, it seemed to me that had New Zealand NOT won this World Cup, it would have been because of panic, rather than choking (an explanation that is just too convenient to use, and unfairly earned, not only by NZ rugby by also by SA cricket). Their composure deserted them, though the injury to their flyhalf, which meant that they played most of the final with a fourth choice pivot, certainly influenced their tactical approach. As did their lead, and they seemed more concerned with defending the one-point advantage than playing proactively, which set the final 30 minutes up as France with the ball, New Zealand without it.
For an explanation of how choking differs from panic, and why a team that loses a match is not necessarily choking, read this piece by Malcolm Gladwell. I’ve never really been fond of simply throwing out the excuse of “chokers” every time the more favored team loses – sometimes you are just outplayed or out-thought by a team who are better than you on the day. The margins in international sport are so small that this can happen fairly easily, and it’s too simple to say “New Zealand choked”, when in fact, France may have simply been unbeatable on a given day, as was the case in 1999. For a comparable case in tennis, Federer’s loss to Tsonga in Wimbledon earlier this year is the best I can think of – sometimes, however great you are, the other team/player just rises to a level that no one would match, and it’s your bad fortune to be there at the time!
The influence of the referee in rugby
However, the tactical and technical nature of the game is not what I want to focus on in this post – that is something that rugby websites around the world will do enough of (see this example for a match report).
Instead, I thought I would give some of my thoughts on a topic that follows every rugby match, and that is the debate and criticism of the referee. The reality is that the referee in a rugby match has become incredibly influential in determining how the game is played. The result is that rugby has a growing credibility problem, where every match threatens to degenerate into objections about the performance of the referee, rather than assessment of the relative performances of its players. Whenever the result on the scoreboard can be dismissed as being the result of someone’s opinion or bias, there is a problem.