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Garces let Ken Owens off

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Jerome Garces let Ken Owens off not once but twice

Wales and Fiji rarely disappoint at the Rugby World Cup, and the 2019 iteration of this long-standing rivalry certainly lived up to its predecessors.

An immensely physical test match saw the lead change hands four times before Warren Gatland’s side eventually pulled away in the final quarter thanks to Josh Adams’ third try and Liam Williams’ bonus-point clincher.

Experienced French official Jerome Garces was the man in charge – although at times it seemed more like the contest, which as a result took 115 minutes, was actually in the control of Kiwi TMO Ben Skeen.

Given the battering taken by the likes of Adams, Dan Biggar and Jonathan Davies, Wales’ medical staff will be working overtime between now and their likely quarter-final clash with France to give Gatland a full complement of players from which to select.

But, are the Six Nations title holders fortunate that hooker Ken Owens avoided a red card and possible absence from their last-eight tie?

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Following a lengthy debate involving the three onfield officials and Skeen, the Scarlets’ No.2 was sent to the sinbin for his first-half tip tackle on outstanding Fiji No.8 Vili Mata.

But in the current climate, as World Rugby remorselessly clamps down on dangerous play, he is incredibly fortunate not to have received his marching orders.

M.Garces took Mata’s speed of travel and the fact that – after a spectacular 360-degree mid-air spin – he landed on his back as providing enough mitigation for Owens to only receive a yellow.

Ken Owens

However, Mata’s legs went way beyond the horizontal, there was no wrap of the arms and Owens was not in control of how and on what part of his body the giant islander landed.

Had the 70-times-capped British & Irish Lion seen red, there could surely have been few complaints, and as a consequence Wales would have faced 70 minutes with 14 men.

The (admittedly all-Welsh) ITV pundit panel were broadly supportive of Garces’ call, but a number of prominent ex-players have since been less so.

Former England fly half Stuart Barnes said Owens “deserved a straight red” and described the French official’s call as “without doubt the most embarrassing faux pas yet in 2019.”

Meanwhile former Fijian ace Waisale Serevi tweeted “that’s a red card if it’s (committed by someone from) Fiji, Tonga or Samoa.”

Owens and Wales also enjoyed a second stroke of good fortune 27 minutes from time when Garces awarded Fiji the penalty try which gave them a 17-15 lead, but did not show a yellow card.

Since the law book was rewritten and simplified, the referee has little latitude in this area.

A penalty try is awarded between the goal posts if foul play by the opposing team prevents a probable try from being scored, or scored in a more advantageous position. A player guilty of this must be cautioned and temporarily suspended or sent off.

The definition of foul play has also been extended to include ‘unfair play’ rather than its more traditional translation which focused on dangerous play, stamping, punching, gouging etc. A collapsed maul is clearly therefore captured within this law.

The sole occasion on which the double whammy of a penalty try and yellow card is not used is when the team of officials is unable to single out one miscreant.

But with the bar set so low for the use of TMO Skeen, Wales were fortunate that Garces opted to move so quickly on. Had he not done so, and with James Davies already in the bin, they would have faced eight minutes with 13 men.

And if Owens was the transgressor – which seems possible but not certain from the single camera angle made available to TV viewers – this would have been followed by Gatland’s team playing the final 20 minutes one man light and with their first-choice hooker facing a possible quarter-final suspension.

Wales and Fiji rarely disappoint at the Rugby World Cup, and the 2019 iteration of this long-standing rivalry certainly lived up to its predecessors.

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Jerome Garces let Ken Owens off not once but twice