Some of the England party currently preparing for Test duty in New Zealand were up until 4am watching the most heart-poundingly dramatic of all Premiership finals – one of the more innocent nocturnal activities in the recent history of red-rose trips to All Black country – and it may be that they are still awake, trying to work out what the hell happened.
They are not alone in their bemusement. The big event at Twickenham was transmitted, via the wonders of modern technology, to rugby followers in almost 150 countries, few of whom can now be entirely sure that the same technology is not having a ruinous effect on the sport they love.
Saracens, a side all but broken by defeat in the Heineken Cup final seven days previously yet strong enough in mind and spirit to drag themselves through the most punishing club match in living memory and get within a split-second of victory, were beaten 24-20 in the last play of the last period of extra time by what may or may not have been a legitimate try from the Northampton prop Alex Waller, having previously been denied a score in circumstances that may or may not have been within International Rugby Board rules and regulations. That’s television for you.
If telly is king, it is also judge and jury, prosecution and defence, evidence in chief and mitigation. The decisions that matter are no longer made by a referee with a whistle, but by a former referee armed with an earpiece, a zapper and the all-consuming power to say “yea” or “nay”. It is the sporting manifestation of the Big Brother syndrome, underpinned by the full Orwellian range of doublethink and newspeak. In a world where forward passes are deemed to travel backwards, anything is possible – much of it deeply depressing.
Graham Hughes was the “television match official” at Twickenham and the big calls were his alone. Careful analysis of the available evidence indicated that those calls were correct – or at least, correct-ish: brilliant as it was, the one-handed off-load from the Saracens full-back Alex Goode that created a try for Owen Farrell at the start of the final quarter was certainly forward; Waller’s touchdown at the death was, on the balance of probabilities, just about legitimate, although the lack of continuity in the film footage meant that Hughes would have struggled to meet a “beyond reasonable doubt” threshold in awarding the title to the Midlanders.
But the system is a dog’s breakfast all the same, and rugby’s governing bodies know it. Hughes could not cast an eye over the dodgy pass thrown by the Northampton centre Luther Burrell in the build-up to George Pisi’s try on 58 minutes because it occurred too early in the attack, and he might not have poked his nose into the Farrell score had the England outside-half not booted the ball into the high heavens in celebration and pranged himself in the process.
In so far as it had anything to do with him, the match referee J P Doyle awarded that try. Only while Farrell was being treated – a long hiatus, as well as a self-inflicted one – did Hughes, bombarded by television replays, suggest that Goode’s pass was worthy of closer inspection. Had Farrell simply touched down the ball and walked back to the polite applause of his colleagues, the score would have stood. As an example of Sod’s Law, has there been anything more soddish in the whole history of the union game?
Afterwards, the Saracens chief executive Edward Griffiths had things to say on the subject of video-ref protocols. “It’s a complete shambles,” he argued, not unreasonably. “They almost make it up as they go along. Will I be raising this at the next opportunity? Without a doubt and absolutely. We need clarification because there are differences between different referees and different television match officials in different games. If you look at the final try, a ref in the old days would have made an educated decision on whether it should stand. Would that have been any better or worse than what happened today?”
While Griffiths supports the use of technology – no one could fairly accuse him of Canutist tendencies – he was making a serious point: the kind of point that explains why cricket is in such an unholy mess with its review system – something on “hotspot” but not on “snicko”; “hawkeye” says the ball is hitting the stumps but not by quite enough – and why football continues to stand firm against the appliance of science. And it was such a shame, not just for Doyle, who refereed superbly in the most testing of circumstances, but for both teams. Everyone deserved better.
Saracens might easily have won. Goode was the most creative player on view and there were mighty performances from the Argentine centre Marcelo Bosch and the South African hooker Schalk Brits, as well as a fine contribution from the tight-head prop Matt Stevens, who drew the sting from the Northampton scrum on his final Premiership appearance. For their part, the Saints were able to draw on the fizz of the Pisi brothers, the cucumber-cool game management of Stephen Myler and a stunning display from the England lock Courtney Lawes, whose defensive mauling was something else.
At the end, there were contrasting reactions from two tormented souls. For the Northampton hooker Dylan Hartley, famously sent off in the 2013 final, redemption reigned: “This is as emotional a moment as I’ve ever had in rugby,” he said. “Since last year, I’ve thought about what happened every day and become obsessed by it. My heart was in my mouth in those last minutes but this feeling makes it all worthwhile – every injury, every ban.”
For Steve Borthwick, the Saracens captain playing his last professional game, there was only pain. And when it was at its most acute, at the final whistle, he busied himself dragging distraught clubmates off the grass and thanking them for their efforts. We expected no less of him, but it was still the act of an outstanding sportsman.