The defining moment from the 2014 Super Rugby final came when Richie McCaw was penalised in the dying stages. It was this penalty that enabled the Waratahs to sneak in front of the Crusaders and claim a one-point win (33-32) after an epic match.
There are few more controversial figures in world rugby than McCaw. It is not that he is a dirty player, but his work at the breakdown has always been the subject of debate. Some view him as a genius—others see him as a cheat.
Indeed, there is a fine line between the two.
Likewise, when he succeeds he is a hero, and when he fails he is so often made a scapegoat.
The decision which saw him penalised has been heavily discussed over the past few days. Scour the comments sections of rugby websites, and you will find all sorts of opinions being put forth. Ditto if you have been listening to New Zealand talk-back radio over the past weekend.
McCaw himself admitted he "should have known better," per The Courier Mail. Perhaps he is right. He did open the situation up for interpretation.
But does he really deserve to be criticised for the penalty?
Sure it was the incident that opened the door for the Waratahs to kick the winning goal. It was also an incident typical of the type that fans the world over have pointed to as being evidence that McCaw indeed is a cheat.
Did he actually infringe in this situation? Does he really deserve to cop any blame or feel that he should have done better?
The infringement he was penalised for was entering the ruck incorrectly. However, as is so often the case, one must question if there was ever a ruck for McCaw to incorrectly enter into.
Waratahs substitute hooker, Tolu Latu, went right from the pick-and-go and went voluntarily to the ground at McCaw's feet. There was never a tackle.
McCaw had all rights to the ball, standing over it, as Latu took his time laying it back for his team. As Law 16 of the International Rugby Board states:
A ruck is a phase of play where one or more players from each team, who are on their feet, in physical contact, close around the ball on the ground. Open play has ended. Players are rucking when they are in a ruck and using their feet to try to win or keep possession of the ball, without being guilty of foul play.
From here, players entering the ruck may not use their hands. They must also come through a "gate" which is the width of the tackled player's body on the ground from directly behind.
In other words, you must join the ruck from the back, not from the side. The exception to this is the tackler, who has rights to get up and play the ball immediately, as long as a ruck has not formed over the top of him.
This is what Richie McCaw was penalised for. Using his hands and entering the ruck incorrectly, while not being the tackler.
Clearly he was not the tackler. There was never a tackle.
But one must question if there was ever a ruck either. When Latu went to ground and McCaw first had his hands on the ball, there were no Waratahs players on their feet present. This would suggest that there was no ruck, meaning there was no gate he had to go through.
It was general play, and the appropriate law to apply would have been Law 14. By this law, a player who goes to ground with the ball must make the ball playable immediately. Latu did not. McCaw was on his feet and attempting to play the ball. He did little wrong; the law does not say anything about entry or a gate.
Does this mean the Crusaders were robbed—that the referee cheated them of a win?
No, of course not.
Craig Joubert simply called it as he saw it. Rugby is a game played at such a fast pace, and so much of what happens at the breakdown comes down to interpretation.
The referee does not have the benefit of replays as the rest of us do. They get one look at an incident and have a matter of seconds to decide how to act.
In this case, by Joubert's interpretation, a ruck had formed. Indeed, a split-second later one had formed. Therefore, he implemented Law 16, seeing McCaw having entered through the side.
He saw a penalty, so he awarded it. You cannot argue with that. In the heat of the moment, he acted upon what he saw. Anyone who has refereed a game of sports will relate to this.
It was a timing issue. In reality, there was no ruck when McCaw contested the ball. By Joubert's interpretation, there was. It is such a fine line, and there are plenty of incidents in every rugby game exactly the same.
Sometimes the player will get away with an infringement. Sometimes he will not. Others he will be penalised when he perhaps should not have been.
It is a stretch to say the penalty, or McCaw, cost the Crusaders the championship. Why isolate just one decision within an 80-minute game? There were plenty of other instances that were up for debate, just as there is in any rugby match. With each of these, the tie would have turned out differently, so to pin the game on one incident is far too reductive.
Of course, many will point to the debatable Nemani Nadolo try early in the second half as being the key incident which went the Crusaders' way.
It is irrelevant in this circumstance, really.
The key issue is whether McCaw deserves to be blamed for the penalty. When you break it down, it is hard to pin too much on him. He thought he had rights to the ball, and he probably did. Joubert saw the situation differently and rightly acted upon what he saw.
It was just one of those things—the grey area in the game as it is known. You cannot dub McCaw a cheat for it. It was not his fault, but neither was it Joubert's.