Highlanders told by referees that Pita Gus Sowakula's try was illegal

It may have caught global attention in the opening round of Super Rugby Pacific, but Pita Gus Sowakula’s spectacular try for the Chiefs against the Highlanders last weekend should not have stood.

That’s the verdict reached by New Zealand Rugby’s [NZR’s] referees, who have informed Highlanders head coach Tony Brown that the try was an illegal act that should have been classified as dangerous play.

Brown confirmed on Wednesday that the try, which saw Sowakula hurdle Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith to score in the left-hand corner, was now deemed by NZR as illegal after confusion reigned over whether the try should have been awarded.

Earlier this week, NZR’s refereeing team conceded it was unsure of the legality of Sowakula’s actions, and had even sought clarification from World Rugby about the ruling, which resulted in the verdict that a penalty should have instead been called.

“I’ve had an email from the referees, who are saying that is now illegal. Dangerous play, I think, is the ruling, even though it’s not in the law, but it’s deemed as being dangerous now,” Brown told media.

Sowakula’s try was an admirable feat of athleticism from the Fijian No 8, of which is rarely seen in rugby union and more common in American football.

The leap left Smith, the Highlanders captain, grasping at thin air in an attempt to stop Sowakula, and that, Brown joked, was what frustrated him more than the incorrect ruling made by the officials.

“No, no,” he said when asked if he was disappointed by the on-field ruling. “I’m more disappointed in Aaron Smith, really, so I’m not worried about what happened on the weekend. I’ll just make sure Aaron does his job.”

On Tuesday, former World Rugby referee Nigel Owens weighed in on the matter, posting on Twitter that Sowakula’s actions were “not defendable” as no defender can make a tackle on a player in the air, unless that player is in the act of scoring.