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Goneva-gate unpacked by former ref

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Goneva-gate and 'a games value offence' - former ref unpacks the controversy

For much of the weekend the Gallagher Premiership’s opening headlines seemed likely to focus on big defeats for Sale and Leicester and a piece of Danny Cipriani debut magic rather than controversy.

But that will provide scant consolation to elite group referee Ian Tempest, for whom a seemingly straightforward decision 20 minutes into his seasonal opener at Kingston Park has quickly blown up into something of a storm.

As the rugby-watching world has now seen, little seemed amiss when Newcastle’s Niki Goneva fielded Saracens No.10 Owen Farrell’s failed drop goal attempt behind his own line.

However, the speedy Fijian proved as rapid in thought as deed. Having carefully positioned his body to shield Sarries’ view of the slow-moving ball, he feigned to touch down but instead brushed his boot laces with the ball prior to setting off down the right wing in a 110-metre unopposed dash to the visitors’ try-line.

Even the most ardent Fez-head would struggle to find anything in the law book which resulted in any outcome other than the award of a Newcastle try. However, to their great relief, Mr Tempest had already – erroneously – awarded a 22-metre drop out.

This whistle may well have accounted for Goneva’s lack of opposition, and despite his protestations a restart drop out was the only possible outcome once the referee had blown.

But after the Premiership champions went on to open their season with a bonus point success over the Falcons – aka everyone’s second favourite team – social media exploded with ‘Goneva-gate’ accusations.

And while he may opt to avoid trial by Twitter, even a spot of light reading on Mr Tempest’s long journey home will not have brought the beleagured whistler much solace, judging by the verdicts of the rugby media.

“Newcastle left to rue controversial refereeing calls” said the Daily Telegraph’s headline, while the BBC website commented: “Newcastle were denied a try in bizarre circumstances.”

But what will probably hurt him most, is the knowledge that his Monday Twickenham sit-down with boss Tony Spreadbury will find an understandable, even forgivable error was compounded by a second completely avoidable self-inflicted wound.

After a long-distance and impromptu snap drop goal such as this, an organised kick chase is rare. Given that a touchdown or dead ball usually follows a failed kick, few referees therefore have the time or inclination to progress beyond the 22-metre line restart point.

However, this does not mean the referee’s concentration can waiver, or eyes can stray far from the ball and those around it. And despite not seeing Goneva touch the ball down – perhaps due to a line of sight interrupted by Newcastle players or post padding – it seems likely that Tempest momentarily relaxed.

When the Newcastle flyer started to run, the official therefore made a rapid reactive decision based on gut instinct and what his sub-conscious told him had probably happened rather than a more considered one, and got it wrong.

Getty Images

Not ideal at this level, but also far from a hanging offence. Shrug the shoulders and move on.

Many have since said Tempest should have allowed play to continue, knowing a TMO referral would subsequently have cleared matters up. While this is true, it fails to consider the alternative scenario which will have flashed through his mind.

Since had Goneva actually completed the touchdown and been heading for his 22 to take a quick drop-out, imagine the carnage that might have resulted had the unsuspecting winger then been crunched by a Saracens forward while on that journey to the restart point.

So once Mr Tempest was unsure about what actually happened in goal, in that split second he undoubtedly took the safest available option.

Had this been the end of the matter there would have been little further comment, however, the under-pressure official attempted to talk his way out of the small hole he had dug.

And in doing so he rapidly replaced a shovel with a mechanical digger by explaining the recall of Goneva as being down to “a games value offence.”

Since these words were not followed up by the award of a penalty, presumably Mr Tempest failed to even convince himself that this was an accurate assessment of what he had – or rather hadn’t – seen.

But assuming this rather clumsy term is a euphemism for gamesmanship, selling a dummy to an opponent hardly ranks alongside – say – the hand of Back or Bloodgate.

After all, what difference exists between Goneva’s actions and any number of other commonplace scenarios? For instance, how about the goal-kicker who having been awarded a penalty retreats from the mark to widen the kicking angle before taking a quick tap and racing past a dozy retreating defence to the try-line?

But in truth, despite the acres of newsprint and screaming social media masses, little harm has been done. Goneva would not have got out of his own half without Tempest’s premature whistle, and with an hour remaining the incident did not turn the match.

And even if the refereeing pecking order behind the retirement-bound Wayne Barnes has just undergone its first minor revision of the season, with 21 more rounds remaining this particular tempest will quickly blow itself out.

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Goneva-gate and 'a games value offence' - former ref unpacks the controversy