Four years of planning and maybe 20 of aspiration ended in the time it takes to sing a verse of 'Die Stem'. A 25-25 draw in Pretoria seemed like an equitable result and a meaningful contest to follow in Jo'burg but some last-minute madness meant that the seminal moment of the game and the series belonged to Ronan O'Gara, and the Munster man will forever have to deal with the penalty awarded against him and converted by Morne Steyn, South Africa's replacement out-half.
I'm not an apologist for O'Gara – he would never hire me – but I do think that fateful penalty has to be revisited for the purposes of balance, consistency and natural justice. If you are not buying, don't worry I'm not selling, just let the pictures do the talking. It is more than a question of semantics.
I consulted with refereeing sources since the second test and they told me that O'Gara's action was a definite penalty. I don't agree; neither does one of their own.
The preamble to the penalty saw Rob Kearney make a short burst and kick long into the Bok 22 close to the touchline. Morne Steyn ran back to collect and rifled a monstrous punt from deep outside his 22 and inside the tramlines. The ball was collected by O'Gara deep inside his 22. I'm sure O'Gara was aware of the game clock. If he had run to the edge of his 22 and kicked to touch, there was no guarantee that the game would be over. The Boks would have the put-in and could conceivably have played keep-ball until either Steyn – Morne or Francois – got into range. O'Gara did the right thing by taking the ball out of his 22. The 90-per-cent play was to put it back where it came from and he is acknowledged as the best in the world at performing that act.
As he carried back, an impulse took him: he'd gone for the 50-per-cent play. Tommy Bowe ran with him and O'Gara clearly intimated to him what was going to happen next. My lip-synching skills tell me that O'Gara said "come on" and pointed his finger to the sky that the ball wasn't going long, but was going into the air. Bowe with his height, speed, athleticism and ability in the air was the perfect chaser.
O'Gara ran out of his 22 and put up a really excellent kick: it was perfectly executed in terms of height, trajectory and length. Maybe, because Bowe had been fooled into performing the 'Black Velvet Band' outside the Mansion House on the premise that all of his teammates would row in behind him as soon as he started the song, and got left like a Charlie singing on his own, maybe this was revenge of sorts. "Go on Ronan, put the ball up and I'll chase it. Not." As the ball was coming down on the halfway line, Bowe had inexplicably arced off onto the left wing and was 20 metres away and stationary in the company of six of his teammates as Fourie du Preez went to catch the ball.
Now O'Gara was the Charlie, he would have to chase his kick on his own. O'Gara does many things well on the field, but chasing and competing for his own Garryowens are not in his contract. What the hell was Bowe thinking? A 50-per-cent play had just gotten slimmer. O'Gara went in pursuit. His first task as the kicker was to put all of his teammates onside as he was the man furthest back. That means he has to chase his kick back to where the ball lands, ergo he is entitled to be in the drop zone to collect his kick and that's exactly where he was when the ball came down: directly under it and stationary.
As you can see from Picture 1, both O'Gara and Du Preez have their eyes on the ball, looking into the sky. Du Preez has the advantage as he has clear sight of the ball; O'Gara has the ball coming over his shoulder.
Picture 2 shows Du Preez doing what most people would do when they are receiving a bomb with chasers: they anticipate the arrival and time the catch with a jump into the ball. Du Preez's right leg is cocked so that any chaser gets a shoe-full or a knee in the kisser. Standard practice, most full-backs extend or cock their non-jumping leg to protect themselves. Again both players have their eyes on the ball, both are still competing for the ball. One in the air, one from the ground.
Picture 3 shows Du Preez having jumped a metre forward and mounted O'Gara's shoulder. O'Gara had been stationary at this stage. His eyes are off the ball now because Du Preez has jumped into him and the contact breaks his focus, but at all stages he is entitled to be in that exact position to try and re-gather the ball. Where in the rulebook does it say that he has to jump to make his challenge legal? There are many instances in test rugby where the jumping player misses the ball and the stationary player catches it. Who says that you have to jump to re-gather? If you trawl through the test series – even the second test – and study Rob Kearney's brilliant performances you will see on several occasions that he stands his ground and the chasers jump, miss and fall over him. Is that a penalty? You can clearly see that O'Gara hasn't tackled him in the air and there is not a hint of reckless or wilful negligence or carelessness or even intent on O'Gara's part.
Picture 4 shows Du Preez, legs outstretched mainly from the volition of his own jump. If he had landed on his feet, my guess is that it would not have been a penalty.
South African television – not Sky – posted an insert on the top of the screen indicating the reason for the penalty as "tackling man in the air." O'Gara protested to Christophe Berdos, "I didn't tackle him." The Frenchman throws his arm in the air to award the penalty and moved his shoulder to show that O'Gara had put his shoulder into the South African. With respect to our out-half, maybe Monsieur Berdos does not know him like we do, but O'Gara has in his career never put his shoulder into anyone.
It was a collision between two players, one who jumped forward into a stationary player and fell over him while knocking him out of the way. It was accidental. I will tell you why. Check out picture one of the Harlequins-Leinster Heineken quarter-final, a match of significance. Felipe Contepomi had just put Leinster 3-0 ahead in the 16th minute and Nick Evans had kicked off to the blind side hoping for a height mismatch between Nick Easter and Luke Fitzgerald.
Picture A shows both players with their eyes on the ball in almost a carbon copy of O'Gara and Du Preez's collision. Easter is stationary because he is standing in the ball-landing zone; Fitzgerald is about to jump into the ball. He has already begun to lift his knee/cock his leg with his non-jumping leg. Picture B shows Easter on the ground and Fitzgerald, having jumped into him, is about to straddle his shoulder; both players still looking for the ball.
Picture C shows that Fitzgerald's leap was so forceful (and legal) that he knocks the powerful Easter sideways (he too was entitled to be where he was) and ends up in a spectacular somersault.
Picture D shows Fitzgerald could have suffered a serious spinal injury. It was an accident, both players were competing for the ball legally. How do I know? The referee said so.
For those of you who don't have the benefit of a recording of the match, this is what Nigel Owens said and as you can see he was closer to the Fitzgerald-Easter collision than Berdos was to the O'Gara-Du Preez contact. After Fitzgerald lands on the ground Owens shouts "Accidental. Advantage." Owens, regarded as one of the world's best referees, thinks it is a legal challenge with a spectacular if not dangerous finish. Both players were well within their rights to do what they did.
Harlequins go on to play the advantage but knock it on. Owen shouts "advantage over" and before anyone can say anything, he explains himself: "Accidental there, not a problem, he jumped up and over him." They were Owens exact words, is it a case of interpretation or consistency? I think it is about strength of conviction and sporting instinct. Berdos had a decent game throughout the second test but his decision in the last second of that game was weak. It would have been far harder to say no penalty, particularly when the call went up. The South African's milked it well and Berdos went with it. If there had been a stronger ref…
O'Gara, unfairly, I think, will carry the can for some time to come.