Exeter boss Rob Baxter believes the style of refereeing being applied in the Gallagher Premiership has changed since the return of veteran Wayne Barnes. The penalty count rose to a high of 174 in the second round of restart matches, an average of 29 per game.
However, with Barnes now available again following his 14-day quarantine after a holiday in Spain and with teams getting more used to the reemphasised breakdown interpretations, the number of penalties conceded fell to 131 in the most recent series of matches, a more acceptable average of 21 per game.
It’s a decline that Baxter suggests could ultimately impact on the visible restart trend of teams frequently kicking to the corner off penalties and scoring off the ensuing lineout mauls. “It’s slowly changing, like we saw in New Zealand,” said Baxter, recalling how high penalty counts in the opening rounds of the Super Rugby Aotearoa declined as that tournament went on.
“When I say mixed interpretation, there has been a learning of what has gone on there. Even in the southern hemisphere, you saw an over-amount of penalties being given.
“That allowed the referees to sit down and actually analyse exactly what was happening. Was the balance what the tackler was doing or what the defensive team was doing, was that being aligned correctly with what the attacking team was doing?
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“Over two or three weeks you have seen that alignment slightly change now where teams are actually starting to realise that just getting into a breakdown can actually mean there is a danger of you giving away a penalty as winning one. That is what we are starting to see now, those penalty counts starting to even out a little and a little bit more flow to the game.
“There are quite strict regulations and rules around the defensive team getting in on the ball and what has happened, probably since Wayne Barnes’ reintroduction, is you need to be good as a defensive team first before he is going to reward you so you have seen more not rolling away penalties, more non-release penalties which have made a more fluid game happen.
“Because we saw a lot more penalties in the early rounds of the restart due to the mixed reactions around the officiating of the breakdown, that creates more opportunities to kick to the corner because there are more penalties. So it could well be the maul is scoring more points and becoming a bigger part of the game… it could just be the weight of penalties is creating a scenario that may slowly ebb away as everything settles down around the breakdown.”
Referee Barnes missed the opening two restart rounds but has since taken charge of the games between Bristol-Exeter and Bath-Wasps, with the Friday night meeting of Worcester-Bristol his latest appointment. Exeter, along with Leicester have conceded the least amount of penalties in the four rounds of matches since the restart, the tally of 39 contrasted wildly with the likes of Bristol who have conceded 59.
So concerned were Sale’s play-off rivals by the initial high figures that Steve Diamond would only permit three of his players to contest the breakdown in last Saturday’s win over Bristol, the Sharks conceding just six penalties compared to totals of 16 and 18 in their first two games back.
POST-LOCKDOWN PENALTIES CONCEDED TABLE
39 – Exeter (11, 13, 6, 9), Leicester (17, 8, 8, 6)
43 – Gloucester (9, 11, 12, 11)
45 – Northampton (7, 12, 12, 14)
46 – Bath (9, 15, 9, 13)
47 – Saracens (10, 16, 9, 12)
50 – Wasps (9, 11, 17, 13)
51 – London Irish (9, 21, 10, 11)
52 – Sale (16, 18, 12, 6)
56 – Harlequins (11, 15, 15, 15)
59 – Bristol (17, 17, 14, 11)
60 – Worcester (13, 17, 20, 10)
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— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 3, 2020
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