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Poite to save World Rugby?

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Is Romain Poite the man to save World Rugby from itself?

Several days ago, I started to contemplate the much-anticipated pool D match between the Wallabies and Wales at Tokyo this coming Sunday. My initial thoughts were about team selection and strategy and where each side might find an advantage over the other and furthermore what influence would the appointed referee, Frenchman Romain Poite would have over the proceedings.

Poite is an official that has a talent for attracting controversy. Justified or not, some of Poite’s decisions before this World Cup will remain under debate for years to come as it is simply the inherent nature and context of the decisions made that ensures controversy will continue.

The former Toulouse police detective is one of the few referees to ever yellow card All Black great Richie McCaw, as he did in a Bledisloe Cup match at Eden Park, the favoured killing ground of New Zealand rugby.

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When refereeing the Wallabies and British Lions in 2013 in Sydney, he sent Wallaby prop Ben Alexander to the sidelines after numerous scrummaging infringements, thus putting a near end to Alexander’s international career and denting the Wallabies’ chances of winning that series.

Furthermore, who could forget the final and deciding test of the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand at Eden Park when Poite overturned his own decision and decided not to penalise Welsh hooker Ken Owens to instead opt for an accidental offside and scrum. It denied a certain three points from a penalty shot and the near-final chance for the hosts to win the historic series. Instead, the match remained locked up and concluded at 15-all, subsequently leaving the three-match series also drawn.

Poite is clearly a man not afraid of making the decision he sees as correct despite the occasion.

I recall watching the 1995 Bledisloe Cup at the Sydney Football Stadium where an All Blacks supporter humorously pointed out to all that could hear him that, after some confusing decisions from the officials, the referee was ‘French’, suggesting the officials’ nationality as reasoning to the supporter’s own apparent conjecture.

French referees have long played a part of the folklore of rugby as being ‘different’, yet Poite appears to have been the French official who has attracted serious controversy in his career through much of his own doing, but he has called it how he has seen it as any referee has and should have the prerogative to do.

However, I feel for Poite as he is now in a precarious position himself before he has even breathed life into his whistle for this seminal pool game between Australia and Wales.

World Rugby as we know has made an astonishing decision to suspend Wallabies winger Reece Hodge for three weeks due to his tackle on Fijian flanker Peceli Yato in the opening pool match. Neither the referee of that match Ben O’Keefe nor the TMO found any fault in Hodge’s tackle, yet World Rugby’s judiciary did.

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Wallabies wing Reece Hodge is going to miss the remaining pool games after being sanctioned. ??#rwc #rugbyworldcup #wallabies #aussierugby #worldrugby

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What’s this to do with Poite, Wales and the Wallabies?

Well, as we know, he refereed the recent pool A match between Samoa and Russia where he issued yellow cards to Samoan players Ray Lee-Lo and Motu Matu’u for dangerous tackles, and did so with the assistance of TMO Graham Hughes. Both the Lee-Lo and Matu’u tackles were clearly more dangerous than that of Hodges. It would appear that both Samoan players are due for numerous weeks on the sidelines despite Poite and Hughes seeing it differently.

This Hodge citing and interpretation of the dangerous tackle/foul play framework by World Rugby has now put the entire playing and officiating body on notice moving forward into the tournament.

World Rugby’s decision on Hodge in itself is a warning shot across the bow of Poite who appears to have, by World Rugby standards, already got it wrong, and now he is in charge of a match in which the fate of two rugby nations lie, knowing the rugby globe will forensically examine how Poite officiates this game.

He is in a near no-win situation regardless of the outcome.

Despite his known independence of thought and practice, has World Rugby now fertilised the ground for Poite to over officiate this match?

While player safety is paramount, I fear the analysis of each tackle or contact will become more important to Poite and his team knowing such a global spotlight is upon them? It took World Rugby nearly four hours to decide the guilt of Reece Hodge, will we now see lengthy stoppages in play if conduct appears to be foul play?

Furthermore, will the likes of Michael Hooper and Alun Wyn Jones be in the ear of Poite more frequently and forcibly making foul play referral requests at an attempt to have players yellow or red carded based upon World Rugby’s ‘common law’ interpretation of their own ‘statute’?

I fear this might be the case. ‘Sir, that was far worse than what Hodgey did!’ gives precedent.

World Rugby may not be fully aware of the ramifications of their judgement and precedent set from the Hodge hearing and suspension as there appears little judicial independence on how to interpret and apply the framework into a common sense outcome.

Referees in the ‘moment’, on the other hand, generally do as they have a feel and flow for the match they are officiating in. I fear Poite may be forced by World Rugby to be less trusting of himself and what he sees as the correct call in an effort to ‘get it right’. He may just end up creating more controversy than he has in the past?

Or perhaps I may yet underestimate Romain Poite. As a former police detective, he will be stubborn, and as we know he is not afraid of going with his own decisions. Perhaps this often-maligned Frenchman may yet save this game of rugby from World Rugby from itself?

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Is Romain Poite the man to save World Rugby from itself?