England’s style of play was not up to a World Cup semifinal – but we’ve still had a week of blaming the officials for their exit


“Thank God that’s over” was the first thought many had after the South Africa-England semifinal.

It was a dreary, tedious spectacle, in my opinion – and if this is the pinnacle of world rugby, then the game is in trouble.

What is worse, the English fans and scribes thought it was brilliant. They still do. Ah yes, the brilliance of paint drying while someone screams ‘superb’ at every up and under.

The scoreline kept things interesting for many, but it was a hard watch. They don’t play to score points; they play to stop the opposition from scoring – if they play at all.

It is a repetitive cycle; ruck, kick, contest the kick – and repeat.

Forwards leisurely stroll to the scrum or lineout.

There is a committee meeting about the scrum or lineout, while ‘tired’ players flop to the floor and seek treatment at every break in play.

Marks are taken at every opportunity, as well as arguments about every decision. Players fist-pump every opposition error like they have won the cup.

Ugh. Swing low indeed. At least they have been carried home.

This is not an attack on northern hemisphere rugby, just the English approach to the game. The celebration of negative play and endless kick, kick, kick!

France and Ireland both played a physical and fluid brand of rugby – it was great to watch. They were both unlucky not to be playing in the semifinals – because on any other day, they might well have been.

Lawrence Dallaglio has made no secret why he believes his try-less team lost: referee Ben O’Keeffe. He is, after all, an easy target, the low-hanging fruit.

England’s Tom Curry speaks to referee Ben O’Keeffe during the Rugby World Cup semifinal. (Photo by Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Antoine Dupont had a similar view after France narrowly lost to the Springboks in a riveting contest.

Ask any Irish fan about their exit and expect a detailed history of Wayne Barnes’ hatred for their team. I would like to point out to our Irish friends that the very same referee Barnes also dished out two cards and a penalty try against the All Blacks in the quarterfinal.

The frustration is understandable; these are big games and it is important the officials get the big calls right. Or at least get them wrong for both teams.

While Dallaglio had reason to question the final scrum penalty against England as the Springbok front row was boring in on an angle, the English bench was outplayed by their South African equivalents – particularly in the scrum.

A lovely piece of irony, they lost because the opposition was boring.

Former England captain Lawrence Dallaglio claims referee Ben O’Keeffe “won” the World Cup semi-final for the Springboks with a late penalty decision.https://t.co/hjszb2GUZp

— SA Rugby magazine (@SARugbymag) October 22, 2023

If I am being honest, it took me years to forgive Barnes for missing two blatant French forward passes in the 2007 quarterfinal against New Zealand. The Englishman is a very good referee and he deserves to officiate the final. So is Ben O’Keefe.

In my view, the problem is the myriad of rules and their openness to interpretation. Every ruck or maul presents a lottery of possible infringements, against either or both teams.

Referees have an instant to decide which to call, or not. Even with TMOs (which in my book stands for ‘Too Many Officials’) forensically reviewing every play, things still get missed or called incorrectly.

Spectators have the advantage of numerous camera angles, replays and a rule book more open to interpretation than Eddie Jones’ career plans.

Let us face it, me included, we are only looking for opposition infringements. Sometimes we just have to suck up the dud calls. If I had realised that in 2007 it might have saved me a few ulcers.

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Speaking of the All Blacks; my sincere apologies to Messieurs Ian Foster and Sam Cane. I was a doubter, questioning every selection call and game plan. I was wrong.

Cane’s best performance in a black jersey came against Ireland in the quarterfinal. Immense. You have timed your run to perfection.

Good luck to both sides this week – and just hope referee Barnes has both eyes open.

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