The South Terrace is a new series from The East Terrace editor James Stafford (@jpstafford), taking a less satirical look at the game
No sports fan ever bemoaned a lack of access to biased sporting opinion.
If a fan doesn’t have enough of their own there’s an eternal abundance of it on tap all around them - usually in the seat beside them at the bar or stadium.
For fans who cannot get enough of thoughts dripping wet in the colour of their own team they need only visit their chosen echo chamber of bias on social media.
#IREvNZL Scoreboard should read Ireland 9 V NZL 7, Ireland robbed by two really dodgy decisions by TMO and ref.!— Ger Mccann (@ger_mccann) November 19, 2016
But one place it would be nice to not have to suffer a proliferation of opinions served up with blinkers is during a live broadcast commentary.
Sky Sports paired Mark Robson and Alan Quinlan for Ireland against New Zealand on the weekend. Bias on television commentary is par for the course now, but this duo form a particularly potent partnership. Last Saturday they delivered all the neutrality and balance of a Russia Today journalist working a story on Putin’s activities in the Crimea.
For non-partisans looking forward to an epic test on the weekend, or fans of Ireland and New Zealand looking for genuine insight and analysis, it was a depressing soundtrack to endure.
A global problem
And before a deluge of complaints stream in stating that other nations have equally biased commentators, I agree fully. I’ve had this topic in mind for a while. Saturday’s match was simply a game I was really looking forward to and was covered in a way frustrating enough to make me finally reach for the keyboard.
Robson made one statement that deserves to go down in rugby folklore as either one of the most one-eyed comments ever made or one of the most naive. Either way it was dreadful.
Robson asked Quinlan if the All Blacks went on to the field actively looking to push the laws of the game to the limit and/or beyond. The answer is simple. Of course they do.
That’s what any rugby team that wins and wins consistently does. You send a team out to play Test rugby and ask them to act like Corinthian gentlemen - strictly adhering to the laws of the game as written in the World Rugby lawbook - and you send a team out committed to defeat.
Robson is a professional pundit of many years and it’s hard to fathom such naive questioning. It’s like he never commentated on, I don’t know, Munster. How can anyone who watched the Munster side that played such a starring role in the first decade of European Cup rugby be surprised at teams playing beyond the laws in an organised fashion?
That famously effective kinetic ball of Limerick rugby cynicism that made four finals and won two European Cups between 2000-2008 was an almost perfect template for winning ugly; expertly occupying the space between the complex paragraphs and subsections that make up the game’s lawbook.
And that’s not to criticise. Munster played to win and got away with it. They deserved their glory as much as any other rugby team that wins consistently does.
It was delightful (and refreshingly honest) to hear Munster legend Paul O’Connell call an All Blacks’ infringement ‘brilliant’ during the halftime pitchside analysis. It was the remark of a man who wasn’t going to piously preach against something he’s done countless times himself and knows that modern day Ireland would do (or should do if they want to win) without hesitation.
If Robson wishes to ask such questions of premeditation, that’s fine. But he needs to also address the dubious way Ireland frequently attack the breakdown area. The way they play the ball on the floor.
If he wants to focus on the high tackles from New Zealand (and there were plenty), he needs to at least counterbalance that by mentioning Johnny Sexton’s one that allowed him to come between ball and ground briefly during Beauden Barrett’s try. He had five immediate chances to do so via instant replay.
Instead we only got praise from both Robson and Quinlan for the illegal tackle.
Sexton’s tackle technique was picked up widely on social media and in online forums by watching supporters. So why was it not even a reference point for the pros on the microphone? Ireland’s RTE commentary team equally ignored the issue.
In contrast to the Pravda like commentary from Sky Sports, full credit to former Irish head coach Eddie O’Sullivan. Appearing on The42.ie (for some reason in front of a Subbuteo board), O’Sullivan who was one of the very few professional pundits to correctly point out that for all the controversy over the grounding of Barrett’s try, almost nobody was mentioning it should have been a penalty try anyway if the ball was not grounded.
Ireland have become a fantastic team to watch recently and will likely deservedly break into the top three of the world rankings soon.
Their shot at immortality last week, against possibly the greatest rugby side to have ever graced the sport, deserved a better soundtrack.