Respect to the Crusaders. Respect to the Lions. Respect to everyone who filled Emirates Airline Park (once known to the world as Ellis Park) and respect to South African referee Jaco Peyper for showing his quality as the best referee in the world.
Peyper’s officiating added integrity to South African rugby and to the notion that quality and ability in a referee should carry more gravitas than nationality. Peyper was huge on a huge occasion – and he needed to be.
He made the right decision in red carding Lions loose-forward Kwagga Smith in the 38th minute, with the Lions trailing 12-3 in Super Rugby’s 2017 finale. The immediate debate, whenever it effects a nation, is about the red card rule. It then goes away the moment it doesn’t effect the particular nation.
For me, the rule should be revisited because the paying public and a global television audience are robbed of a contest, especially in some of the biggest games in the sport.
I’ve always believed in rugby 15 plays 15 equals a contest and that 15 should always play 15. A player, red carded, should be replaced for the duration of the contest and the player dealt with in a judiciary afterwards. The immediate punishment to the player is that he plays no further part in the match but the team should not be punished for the actions of one player – and the public should not be denied a contest because of the actions of a player or the interpretation of a match official.
The integrity of the sport continues to be tested because so many match outcomes are influenced with yellow and red cards. In some cases the player is the culprit and in others it’s the interpretation of the official.
Either way the sport’s bosses priority should be to treat the public to a contest that ensures 15 always plays 15.
It’s meaningless to speculate about what would have happened had Smith not been sent off. He was. It was the same when All Blacks centre Sonny Bill Williams was sent off after just 24 minutes in the second Test against the British and Irish Lions. How different would the match outcome of been? It doesn’t really matter because he was sent off, the Lions won and the three-match series ultimately was shared.
The Crusaders won in Johannesburg, playing 15 on 14 for the last 42 minutes, and coach Scott Robertson agreed it certainly influenced the result. The red card shouldn’t detract from the Crusaders win because they deserve every plaudit for fashioning the most incredible of triumphs, with the competition’s 21 year-old history and the entire South African rugby public weighted against them.
No team in Super Rugby had ever travelled to South Africa and won a final. The Crusaders, now a record eight times champion, are the first. They were also the first to win away from home in a final in New Zealand and the first overseas team to win a final in Australia. The franchise has also won four of their eight finals away from home.
The Crusaders in the 38 minutes when it was 15 on 15 were clinical, disciplined and intelligent. They controlled the final.
The Lions were brave and defiant until the end. Their comeback from 25-3 to 25-17 with 10 minutes to go was down to their class as a rugby team. The hosts were still in with a chance with five minutes to go. It was that close and Robertson afterwards admitted that the message in the last 10 minutes was to play out the game in blocks of two minutes each. Altitude is a killer in the final 20 minutes but the magnificence of the Crusaders was their mental resolve to see off the Lions.
Give these Kiwis their due because no other team in the competition would have beaten the Lions under the circumstances.
It was an incredible day for South African rugby, despite the result. A few days after the government endorsed South Africa’s 2023 Rugby World Cup bid with the necessary support and financial guarantees, South African rugby put on a show of the highest quality.
The Super Rugby final gave a hint – and a reminder – of just how amazing it would be hosting the 2023 Rugby World Cup in South Africa.
The Lions, second on the day, were champions in every other sense. This team’s appeal extended their provincial base. Red, on Saturday, was South Africa’s national colour and hopefully the goodwill and emotional investment extends to the Springboks’ Rugby Championship.