The dust is settling in South Africa, where Ireland took on the mighty Springboks in a three-Test summer series, which saw Ireland return home with a losing record, but with their heads held high.
If you were told before the series that Ireland would finally break their duck against the home nation, you would in all likelihood have regarded that as a successful series.
Three close-fought matches and two defeats later, Ireland rugby fans have been left feeling deflated and a little cheated.
Deflated by an often dominant Ireland not completing a historic series-winning victory; cheated by a seemingly inconsistent refereeing decisions in game three, where Tiernan O’Halloran was hit in the air by Willie Le Roux, leaving him unable to complete his first starting game for Ireland.
The challenge was similar to the one that saw CJ Stander receive a straight red card during the first Test and a subsequent one-match ban. Le Roux, however, only saw yellow for a challenge that appeared to be both more reckless and dangerous.
Fans were left incensed by the mere warning given and lamented the decision as a turning point in the game, where Ireland were forced to cobble together a back line that saw Munster’s Keith Earls fill the unfamiliar position at full-back.
After the match, and faced with returning to Ireland with a series loss, Schmidt snapped us all out of our gloom and sense of injustice as, when asked by the Irish Times‘ Gerry Thornley about the refereeing decisions and a lack of consistency, Schmidt simply stated:
“Look, we spent six hours going back through the game to deliver our referee report. We send that back and we get a bit of feedback from referees.
“We use the official channels to comment, we don’t comment publicly about referee performance because they are an incredibly important part of the game.
“They have an incredibly difficult job to do and I think they go out to do it as best they can. We could probably point the finger at a few errors that we made today. We might have enough to get over the line otherwise so referees are very human as well.”
Even in his disappointment at an opportunity lost, Schmidt reminded us all of his professionalism and class. The sanctity of rugby refereeing is one of the cornerstones of the game. Disrespect of the referee on the field will see swift and strong repercussions for the offending party. Remember Top 14 side Oyannax’s Silvere Tian? He received a 15-month ban in April for threatening Romain Poite.
While Ireland fans will certainly still feel aggrieved by the decision not to show red to Le Roux, emotions will be tempered by the comments from Schmidt as we are reminded that in rugby there are proper channels to follow. Le Roux has been cited and will face a disciplinary panel in the coming days. Too late for Ireland’s summer tour, but at least there is still music to face.
If we are to disband the notion of respect for the referee and his or her match officials, rugby runs the risk of becoming like football, where respect for the referee is nothing more than a mere notion. On the football field players routinely shout at, surround and generally intimidate referees and openly question their decisions.
Rugby cannot descend to this level. The physicality of the game cannot allow it. Respect is paramount. As Schmidt said, referees are human too. Mistakes can be made.
For the vast majority of rugby professionals, yesterday’s incident is now old news. Save for some physical soreness felt by O’Halloran, everyone has moved on. We all now must follow their example and do the same.
Gary Brennan, Pundit Arena