Every now and then I start to get somewhat frustrated with the international refereeing in USA games.
I see borderline calls go, consistently, against the USA. I see players yellow carded for accidental knock-ons, and conversions that missed get called good. I see yellow cards given for infractions ignored on the other side.
I start to complain about it, but the complaints eventually fizzle. Coaches and players tell me other factors contributed to the result. I am asked to let it be. I realize that maybe the borderline calls are small things in a greater cosmos.
But not this time. This time is different. The performance of referee Jerome Garces of France when he officiated Saturday’s game between the USA and Italy was bad enough for me to say something.
Of course Garces came into the game expecting to officiate in a fair and reasonable manner – how could he think otherwise? But in the end his decisions ruined the game, held before a record crowd of over 17,000 that deserved better, and his decisions created what I can only assume is an unintentional effect – that of guaranteeing the USA would lose.
Let’s put aside the annoying little things. Killing the ball in the rucks – an activity new laws and guidelines were supposed to stop – is annoying, but isn’t the issue.
Certainly Garces policed ball-killing not at all and had a fluid idea of what the offside line or the gate really are. But that’s like complaining that your flowers are dusty when your house has just fallen down.
Here, instead, are six decisions that mattered in the game:
1. Italy scored in the first few minutes on an lineout overthrow. The muffed lineout was the USA’s fault. But consider that just as Todd Clever attempted to grab that loose ball he, was grabbed himself. While the eventual try-scorer took the ball and scored, Clever was slammed to the ground. Should the try have been disallowed for this? Actually, I don’t think so, but the fact that an Italian player tackled a USA player without the ball, and finished that tackle all the way, and was not penalized, is important.
2. Italy repeatedly kicked the ball away after a penalty was called against them. This is an extra ten meters at minimum, and something I have seen yellow card given for before. The USA team complained, to no avail.
3. At the beginning of the second half, Paul Emerick was taken out in the air on a kickoff. The USA was penalized instead for obstruction by Andrew Suniula, when he was kind of in the way of a Italian tackler – a move that happens all the time. Dangerous play not punished, borderline play penalized.
4. A few minutes later, Suniula is red carded for a late hit on Italy flyhalf Riccardo Bocchino. This tackle was late, and deserved a penalty. It might, might have deserved a yellow card, if you wanted to be harsh. Bocchino helped things along by collapsing to the ground like a soccer player – complete with the little whimper. Once the penalty was given, Bocchino happily bounced back up.
This was not a red card offense. It wasn’t even close. It’s a type of penalty given every week in rugby around the world, and never gets a red. The issuance of the red card, when the score was 20-10 and the result still in doubt (given the fact Italy has proved unable to score a try unless it was gift-wrapped for them), seemed to guarantee that the USA would be put away quickly.
5. Despite this red card, and despite a brutal battle in the rucks that left Scott LaValla bleeding as if he’d been cut across the forehead by a scimitar, the Eagles stayed close. At 67 minutes it was still 20-10.
In this scenario, Paul Emerick raced in to tackle center Luca Morisi. Morisi passed just before Emerick, who was in full flight, hit him. It’s a clean hit. Emerick’s right arm wraps around Morisi. It’s not high, a wrap (barely), and just after the pass. It’s the type of tackle allowed in world rugby all the time. Referee Garces gives it a red.
This leads to one of the best lines I have ever heard form a beleaguered captain. Todd Clever: “Only a red?”
A brilliant comment from Clever to indicate he thinks things are over the top.
The result is the USA is down two men, and Bocchino kicks a penalty.
6. On a restart Colin Hawley is clearly taken out while in the air. No penalty, despite the dangerous nature of the play.
The determination with which the USA fought on to keep that game under control should make every American rugby fan proud. Those 13 left on the field did everything they could to win, but eventually had to cave to the inevitable as Italy scored a late try. And that loss, really, should be put at the feet of the USA team, which made three crucial errors in the first half to give Italy 17 points.
But in refereeing a friendly match, that was supposed to highlight this great game in the USA, and was played before a record crowd, referee Jerome Garces decided to take control away from the players and to officiate by dictatorial fiat. The red carding two American players who did not deserve it destroyed the game, and (unintentionally, I am sure) ensured that Italy would win.
Garces ignored several obvious penalties against Italy that were as serious as those he dismembered the USA for, and ignored Italy’s negative play.
Something should be done by the IRB about a referee that does this. It was a horrible shame to see such a game destroyed by one man. Everyone else in that stadium had paid good money, or worked enormously hard, to be there. Referee Jerome Garces was supposed to help make it all worthwhile. Instead, he took what could have been a thrilling finish, wrapped it in red wrapping paper, and threw it away.