Contentious refereeing popped up at Ellis Park again and the Waratahs' under-achieving season continued.
What are we talking about after NSW's loss to the Lions?
Moaning about a refereeing performance is usually a mug’s game.
It can’t be changed and usually a look in the dressing room mirror will reveal the more culpable party in a loss.
Both of those two truisms apply to the Waratahs after their one-point defeat to the Lions in Johannesburg.
They turned the ball over far too often when attacking the Lions’ line and could have taken it away from the home side with more patience.
But the refereeing of Egon Seconds played a part, too. Of that there is no doubt.
Seconds caned the Waratahs 11-2 in the count; including six in the last quarter alone. And that’s the calls that were made.
Another half-dozen baffling ones were not made in NSW’s favour.
Though the actual penalty that pushed the Lions ahead by a point was probably fair, many decisions in the lead up were contentious.
Ever-calm, Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson bemoaned “harsh” calls but didn’t go off his head post-game.
Just like Dave Wessels chose to not blow up about the Rebels getting hammered 20-1 in the penalty count against the Lions earlier in the year.
With Seconds as the referee.
The cold facts are Seconds has this season given the Lions 31 penalties against Australian teams at Ellis Park, and awarded just three against them. In total.
Something is not right with that figure and take it as read the Waratahs will be as privately filthy as the Rebels were.
There is disquiet among some Australian rugby officials, too, and don’t be surprised if questions are asked to SANZAAR ref bosses on Monday morning.
Seconds is a former Stormers winger who was brought through the ranks in the same sort of ex-player scheme as Nic Berry and Damon Murphy.
Perhaps that’s why instincts kicked in and, in a clip doing the rounds on social media, Seconds physically brushed Michael Hooper off a legitimate turnover attempt a ruck.
That one is definitely not in the handbook.
A cursory glance of media, social and traditional, shows Seconds’ games are usually followed by heated debate about his performance.
Lions fans weren’t all that happy either and they won.
Ex-Wallaby lock Justin Harrison loves to say kicking is “a turnover in disguise”, so let’s hope his TV survived watching NSW in the second half.
With the free-flowing, six-try first half having slowed down into a much tighter contest after oranges, the Waratahs lack of territory and possession began to take a toll.
They would end up only 38 per cent for both key stats for the whole game.
When their opportunites to build pressure in the Lions red-zone came, the Tahs gave the ball away too quickly and too often.
An over-supply of attacking chip kicks or grubber kicks were re-gathered by the Lions reasonably comfortably.
Throw in a few breakdown turnovers by the Lions and some lost ball in contact and the Waratahs simply didn’t control possession for long enough to get the job done.
That’s in part because the high-tempo, high-pass, high-offload game was working nicely in the first half.
But as the game got tighter and the legs got more tired, a shift in strategy to be more controlled was required – particularly with the rub of the green against them elsewhere.
SO CLOSE OR ALREADY GONE?
Six bonus point losses for the Waratahs in 2019 and it’s one of those conundrum seasons: do those margins reflect NSW is so close and not a bad team, or does the 4-7 win loss record tell you everything you need to know.
The Waratahs are now six points adrift of the Rebels and by Sunday afternoon, possibly the Brumbies too.
An oddly congested Super Rugby season – where everyone is beating everyone bar the Crusaders and the Hurricanes – means they’re still theoretically in the hunt for the finals race.
There is still only seven points between the Waratahs in 13th and the Sharks in third.
But if NSW lose to the Reds next week, it’s just about all over.
Or maybe not, who honestly knows.
Strange things happen but as the good teams understand, when you are relying on others to lose, you’re in strife.
So are the Waratahs a good team? If they made the finals, could they threaten anyway?
That’s the thing. You’d still have to lean towards yes.
NSW are the only team to beat the Crusaders, lost to the Hurricanes by a point (should have won) and also only lost by a point at altitude to last year’s finalist, the Lions.
The playoffs will be fascinating this year because the only team you’d bet on with any confidence is the Crusaders.
Many Kiwi teams have come back to the pack and even away from home, travelling teams are winning games.
The Waratahs’ hopes of surging home into the finals won’t be helped by the fact Sekope Kepu is going to sit out at least one game. Probably two.
The veteran prop has pulled the mother of all double-time shifts this season, with injuries to Tom Robertson, Sham Vui and the departure of Paddy Ryan leaving him to hold up a young front row.
He’s not only played every game but he’s played 20 minutes longer than usual each week, too, meaning he’s added a game or three extra to his season.
And Kepu looked knackered in the second half of the Lions game. The rest will be earned.
The duty of senior prop on duty will now fall to Robertson, whose return from injury will take another step further into remarkable by shifting back to tighthead.
IN THE WALLABY HUNT
He keeps getting it done with quiet efficiency but Karmichael Hunt’s form at no.12 would have to have him back in the Wallabies’ selection mix.
Hunt’s mix of physicality – with and without the ball – adds a nice starch to the NSW line but it’s his little moments of creativity that will entrance Scott Johnson and co.
Last week against the Bulls, Hunt gave a behind-the-back pass for Nick Phipps’ try and this week he set up another for the trailing number nine with a nice offload in traffic to Cam Clark.
Hunt has shown a deft wide passing touch at times this year, too.
A mix of physicality and skill is the blend you want at no.12 for Australia, and you get that with Hunt and Matt To’omua.
It feels like Kurtley Beale will be in the mix for no.15, and his electricity and kicking games are influential.
But with the ever-solid Dane Haylett-Petty back in form at the Rebels, too, that’s a battle with lots to run yet.
Could we see Beale filling the super-sub role again at the 2019 World Cup?
And here is another morsel for the Facebook commenters: Rob Simmons played strongly and his form is a good sign for big tournaments later in the year.