2 Jun 2018

Too much niggle in Highlanders-'Canes clash

5:31 pm on 2 June 2018
Ben Smith.

Ben Smith. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Let's get one thing straight: The Highlanders got their 30-14 victory over the Hurricanes last night for a variety of reasons but refereeing wasn't one of them.

It's more accurate to put it down to a huge game by Tom Franklin, intelligent kicking by Lima Sopoaga and Aaron Smith, and the smart work of giving the ball to their dangerous wingers on the front foot. Not to forget the Hurricanes' complete inability to do the same for the second weekend in a row.

But that's not what this game will be remembered for. At least not for the time being anyway.

Liam Squire's tackle on Julian Savea, then Savea's subsequent retaliation is a main talking point. But it's worth taking into account that this was a very bad-tempered match from start to finish, and not just the attitude the players had with one another.

It was evident early on that both captains had very little respect for referee Ben O'Keeffe's decision making. It didn't take long for Brad Shields and Ben Smith to routinely ask for explanations of rulings, something usually reserved for try-scoring reviews and cards. Chuck in the incessant chatter from Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara (this is not a slight - being yappy is part of a halfback's job) and suddenly the game became more of a debating contest than a rugby match.

It got to the point where Shields blatantly tried to second-guess O'Keeffe, ironically when Smith went down with an injury in the first half. O'Keeffe correctly stopped play while Smith lay prone after coming down hard collecting a high ball - but then when he leapt to his feet and shook it off, Shields had the nerve to claim it should be a Hurricanes' scrum.

Most people know that the opposite ruling is what should happen, and considering it was Shields' 100th Super Rugby match, it's highly doubtful he didn't. It was a clear case of trying to get one over the ref, and there's two schools of thought as to why.

Maybe he knew O'Keeffe would be rattled by the fact that the fallout from the infamous Joe Moody forearm/try combo hadn't quite died down. O'Keeffe and his assistants missed that piece of fruitful foul play that helped mount a Crusaders' comeback against the Waratahs. That, in turn, led to some heavy criticism from the press over the other side of the Tasman, who called for O'Keeffe to be dropped from refereeing appointments.

Or maybe Shields knew he needed to get a word in early and often, because if he didn't then Smith certainly would. The All Blacks' fullback has a reputation as one of rugby's nice blokes but a cursory glance at the way he's talked to refs this year does reveal a slyly manipulative side that has worked in the Highlanders' favour more often than not.

The niggly aspects of the game came to head just before halftime when Squire's obvious high tackle on Savea caused the winger to churlishly lash out and throw an obvious punch in retaliation. While Squire got sent to the bin, Savea didn't follow him because of lack of any evidence that he actually connected. Which is an odd interpretation at best given it means that it incentivises the person on the receiving end to sit there and take the blow - and make sure a camera gets it in shot.

When it's all said and done though, all of this is just another example of the gamesmanship that has to be expected at this level. Great captains built entire reputations on their ability to influence referees, and this is something that New Zealanders need to accept given that the two best - Sean Fitzpatrick and Richie McCaw - are national heroes.

However, maybe it would've been better if O'Keeffe had just told Ben Smith and Brad Shields to shut the hell up and play.

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