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The most controversial international rugby refereeing decisions ever

By Jack Tunney
Referee Romain Poite attempts to explain himself to All Blacks and Lions captains Kieran Read and Sam Warburton during the 2017 British & Irish Lions Tour of New Zealand.

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Rugby referees are just as important to the game of rugby as the players themselves. Without the man in the middle, the game would fall apart.


If a player has a bad game, it’s not the end of the world, there are 14 others to make up for them. On the flip side, if the referee has a bad game, it could affect the entire outcome of the match.

Check out the most controversial rugby refereeing decisions below:

5) Craig Joubert – Scotland vs Australia 2015 RWC

LONDON, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 18: Referee Craig Joubert awards Australia a late match winning penalty during the 2015 Rugby World Cup Quarter Final match between Australia and Scotland at Twickenham Stadium on October 18, 2015 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images).

Possibly the first time Twickenham has ever unanimously sung ‘Flower of Scotland’.

Scotland entered this game as major underdogs against the mighty Wallabies. This did not stop them from going hammer and tongs at the men in gold, however.

As the clock turned 78, it was tight with Scotland leading the way at 34-32. It was then that Joubert made the huge decision, giving Australia the penalty to win the game.

The ball had come over a Scottish shoulder, to be caught instinctively by Jon Welsh recovering himself from an offside position.


Whilst this was the correct decision, it didn’t stop those hardy Scots from being outraged about missing out on the final by those tight margins.

4) Wayne Barnes – New Zealand vs France 2007 RWC

Referee Wayne Barnes during the 2007 RWC quarter-final between New Zealand and France. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images).

In 2007 the All Blacks were once again red hot favourites to lift the William Webb Ellis trophy. This would have been the first time since the inaugural 1987 Rugby World Cup.

They lined up against old rivals France in the quarter-finals on a wet windy Cardiff night. The men in black started well, showing their dominance again the French outfit.

Things started to go south midway through the game though, as the French side started to work their magic.


It was what happened in the 67th minute that turned the game from the normal to the utterly impossible.

Freddie Michalak had come on to the field to inject some of his magic and found himself free along the left touchline after a blatant forward pass from Damien Traille. This led to a wonderful offload from Michalak to allow Yannick Jauzion to go over the line and put the French in front.

Despite the obviousness of the pass, the try was allowed to stand, and New Zealand ended up being dumped out of the competition.

3) Pascal Gauzere – England vs Wales 2021 Six Nations

Wales’ wing Josh Adams (L) is congratulated by Wales’ centre Jonathan Davies (2nd L) as England’s fly-half George Ford (C) appeals to referee Pascal Gauzere (R) after Adams scores a try during the Six Nations international rugby union match between Wales and England at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, on February 27, 2021. (Photo by Paul Ellis /AFP via Getty Images).

This game had it all. Superstar wingers, controversy, and a trophy win.

Looking at the controversies in particular though, the referee more than stole the show.

First up young winger Louis Rees-Zammit appeared to knock the ball forwards with his right hand before the ball hit his leg and went backwards. This enabled Liam Williams to then pick the ball up and run through to score under the posts.

Rugby fans were screaming for a knock-on. Even the Welsh weren’t expecting the try to stand. After a long look at the video footage, the try stood. Even Rees-Zammit was pictured with a look of shock on his face.

The ruling was that even though the ball went forwards off of his hand, because it then went backwards off of his leg before it touched the ground, it was not deemed as a knock-on.

Later on in that game, Dan Biggar used all of his year’s worth of experience to catch England napping.

Gauzere had instructed captain Owen Farrell to go back and speak to his team, but whilst the England squad were in a huddle Biggar asked Gauzere if time was back on. With his go-ahead, Biggar launched a cross-field kick for electric winger Josh Adams to catch and put down.

There was fury from the England supporters as they firmly believed their squad had not been given enough time to re-group.

Gauzere has since admitted his mistakes and retired from international refereeing just a few months later.

2) Alain Rolland – England vs South Africa 2007 RWC

Ireland’s referee Alain Rolland (R) gestures as he asks the TV match official to confirm or cancel the try scored by England’s winger Mark Cueto during the Rugby World Cup final match England vs. South Africa, 20 October 2007 at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, north of Paris. (Photo credit should read Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images).

England had not been performing well in this tournament. After getting thumped by South Africa in the group stages, the underperforming men in white somehow squeezed their way to the final.

Having won the tournament in 2003, they know how to win big games in big tournaments.

This time around it was not to be for the English side, as the South Africans showed the excellence they possessed to bring the trophy home for the first time in 12 years.

The controversial moment that English fans still hang onto happened early on in the second half as the scores were tight.

Mark Cueto caught the ball off of a cheeky flick pass from Jonny Wilkinson on the left-hand wing and went over in the corner, which if converted would have seen the reigning champions take the lead.

The finest margins stopped this from happening however, with Cueto’s left foot scraping the paint of the touchline by millimetres. 15 years on and the English faithful will happily tell you that it was a try, but the only opinion that mattered was Alain Rolland. His decision was no try.

1) Romain Poite – British and Irish Lions vs New Zealand 2017

Lions 2017
Kieran Read of the All Blacks remonstrates with referee Romain Poite during the Test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Eden Park on July 8, 2017 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images).

After defeating Australia in their own backyard back in 2013, the British and Irish Lions found themselves against the reigning world cup champions New Zealand. Arguably the toughest of all their opponents.

The tour was currently a win-a-piece coming into the final of the 3 games.

With the scores tied 15-15 in the 78th minute, Romaine Poite blew up for an offside call against the Lions in their own half. This was initially thought to be a penalty, which would have given the All Blacks the opportunity to kick to win the game.

After a TMO decision however, this was reversed to just a scrum on the basis that the offending player did not intend to play the ball, resulting in an accidental offside call.

Consequently, the All Blacks failed to score any more points and the game ended 15-15 with the series being a tie, much to the dismay of the All Blacks fans.



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