Referee Craig Joubert leaves Scotland raging as Australia enjoy great escape
Alex Dimond was at Twickenham to witness a controversial call from referee Craig Joubert overshadow an epic World Cup quarter-final between Scotland and Australia.
‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’, as Dylan Thomas famously wrote. Wales certainly followed the urging of their most famous poet in their late, agonising defeat to South Africa at Twickenham on Saturday, but it was Scotland who really took that message to heart - even if they too were ultimately denied (and in even more heart-breaking fashion) at the same venue 24 hours later.
In the end Scotland’s light in this tournament was cruelly extinguished, and all they were left with was a rage that their captain admitted would take a long time to pass.
“It’s a pretty upset dressing room,” a bereft Greig Laidlaw acknowledged, after Bernard Foley’s last-minute penalty condemned Scotland to a 35-34 defeat. “It’s going to take at least a few … I don’t know, days, weeks to get over.”
David Denton - who carried the ball more than any other player during the match - went even further, suggesting afterwards that the late loss had “ruined the next four years of my life”.
Two, three, four times it appeared that Australia had Scotland beaten, that a Test match many had assumed would be one-sided was finally about to swing irrevocably their way - only for individual moments of inspiration to drag the northern hemisphere’s one remaining participant back into the contest.
Finn Russell’s chargedown allowed Tommy Seymour to pull a side that was teetering on the brink back into the match midway through the second half. Then, when Mark Bennett’s brilliant interception and try put Vern Cotter’s side two points clear with only four minutes remaining, it looked like the unthinkable would happen - an upset no-one had been prepared to countenance was about to be completed.
It would have been too, were it not for a moment of controversy that will not soon be forgotten around Murrayfield. A botched line out saw the ball bounce around on a pitch rendered slick by a late rain shower, bouncing off the shoulder of Josh Strauss - or was it Australia’s Nick Phipps? - before being caught by another Scottish replacement, Jon Welsh.
Referee Craig Joubert saw that as deliberate offside, and a penalty was awarded. Despite a replay on the big screen suggesting some discrepancies with the decision, Bernard Foley kicked the attempt from deep within a fog of boos to give Australia the luckiest of one-point wins.
After blowing his whistle at full-time Joubert ran straight for the tunnel, making it impossible for Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw, or indeed any other player or coach, to hold him to account. The South African seemed to already know he was about to become the centre of attention, his decision defining a breathtaking match that may have achieved the impossible and usurped Japan-South Africa as the competition’s best.
“We were one kick away from being in the semi-finals - arguably we should have been,” Laidlaw said ruefully. “It looked like to me - I didn’t have the perfect view - that it hit Phipps and came back and our player caught it, but obviously Strauss was in and around it [too]. I asked him [Joubert] on several occasions [to refer to the TMO], but I don’t what the protocols are or not. He made a sharp exit at the end of the game, that’s for sure.”
Predictably the two sides differed over the game’s decisive moment, although Laidlaw’s evident difficulty in maintaining a certain diplomatic restraint, coupled with Australia’s own evasive answers on the controversy, told its own story.
“It’s a penalty,” Cheika said in his pitchside interview. “That’s the way it works. That’s life. You’ve still got to kick it once you get it.”
Such bluntness - but without ever actually addressing the merit of the decision itself - had only been tempered slightly when he met the written press: “At the end of the day as long as rugby has been around that’s what it is. You have to live with the ones you get and the ones you don’t. It is what it is and you deal with it.”
Scotland had already realised that, of course: Laidlaw tacitly acknowledging that if Scotland had simply been able to hold on to their own lineout in those dying moments they probably would have held on to the match as well. “If we had tightened up in other areas maybe we would have been alright,” he said.
On social media, it was Joubert’s name that was quickly trending - the controversial South African now almost certain not to be invited to preside over any of the remaining games of the tournament (nor to any parties north of Hadrian’s Wall any time soon).
His earlier decision to yellow card winger Sean Maitland was also disputable, Cotter being generous in calling it a “50-50”. In the immediate aftermath, an overall performance that may one day be looked back upon as a turning point for Scottish rugby was overshadowed by the one man on the pitch who never actually carried the ball.
“Most of these questions are about the referee,” Cotter said, some frustration evident. “It’s tough, we are probably not talking as much as we’d like to. Give it a day or two. The team showed character and commitment. I’m proud of them. Proud of them as men and rugby players.”
In Australia the match was quickly dubbed ‘the great escape’, an indication of how lucky the Wallabies had perhaps been to stare defeat in the face and come out smiling. “If that’s an escape, then I’m happy to escape,” Cheika smiled, before adding: “Look, usually if you kick a goal to win with a minute remaining it’s a pretty good escape. But also if you score five tries in a quarter-final of a World Cup you expect to be near the winning end of the game. I knew the game was going to be this tight. I had no other delusions. You are only going to see that team improve because of the people that are involved.”
Australia's Tevita Kuridrani, Adam Ashley Cooper and Kurtley Beale (R) celebrate after the gameReuters
And of course it should not be forgotten that Australia successfully raged against their own dying light, driving forward with conviction and determination despite the seconds ticking away and the cause looking increasingly hopeless.
Foley had made numerous mistakes throughout the game and missed a handful of kicks, yet his coach stuck with him throughout - and the fly-half ended up slotting the vital kick at the death. When viewing the overall flow of the match (Australia fumbled an early chance across the whitewash, and had another try chalked off for a knock-on at the breakdown that was only spotted after the event) it would be hard to argue that they actually deserved to lose, as inspiring as Scotland’s charge was.
“Many teams would have thought, ‘Okay we’ve had a good run, let’s go home,’” Cheika added. “I like the way we went back and did everything we could to try and get the game back.”
“Look, you take the win any way you can,” Australia captain Stephen Moore concluded. “Whether it’s early in the game or in the last minute, when the opportunity comes it is important you take it.”
Australia did, even if it was gifted to them somewhat by the referee. The rage will consume Scotland for some time to come but, when it dissipates, hopefully they will be able to feel a pride in their performance, and take inspiration from it as they build towards the Six Nations.
They deserve to.
Alex Dimond at Twickenham - @alexdimond