Lions series has gone up a notch, now refereeing needs to as well - Andy Goode
The 2021 British & Irish Lions tour went up several notches this week and now the refereeing needs to follow suit before we get to the Test series.
Wednesday’s encounter was labelled an unofficial fourth Test in the media as South Africa A were the Springboks in all but name and, while they and the Lions performed to levels that certainly whetted the appetite for what’s to come, the same cannot be said of the officiating.
There is no secret to the way the Boks want to play and maximum physicality is point number one in their game plan. There is no issue whatsoever with that as long as it’s within the laws, and the directives we’ve seen from World Rugby over the past couple of years are being applied.
Jaco Peyper either let a lot of things slide or failed to spot a number of infringements in the game on Wednesday and that cannot be the case in the Tests, especially with the backdrop of what happened 12 years ago.
The second Test of the 2009 tour was particularly brutal with Schalk Burger famously only receiving a yellow card for “making contact with the eye area” of Luke Fitzgerald in the first minute and Bakkies Botha also being retrospectively banned for a dangerous charge on Adam Jones.
Gethin Jenkins had a plastic plate inserted into his face, Brian O’Driscoll’s tour was ended due to concussion and Jamie Roberts was ruled out with a wrist injury after that second Test as well.
It goes without saying that a lot has changed in the sport over the course of the past decade and we cannot see a repeat of those scenes this time around if World Rugby are serious about player welfare and the messages they have been sending out in recent years.
“I thought it looked reckless to me. No arms and he’s hit the arm first and then the shoulder, but there’s definitely head-on-head contact,” said Gatland.
“I can’t understand the comments that there was no contact to the head. Someone was watching a different picture to me.”
That was far from the only questionable call. There was potential head-on-head contact from Jesse Kriel on Chris Harris in a tackle after the ball had gone and an incident involving Sbu Nkosi and Willie le Roux on Anthony Watson to name just a couple more.
People are looking at Owen Farrell’s tackle technique too, and have been for a good while now, so the focus isn’t just on the South African players.
Nobody wants to see players sent off but we honestly could see up to a handful of red cards per game in the Test matches if we see scenes like we did in the South Africa A encounter and the laws are applied correctly and as they have been in recent times.
We’re likely to see the game refereed in a very different way when the Lions face the Stormers this weekend as Wayne Barnes is in charge of that one and we all want to see consistency when it comes to the officiating in the Tests.
Physicality is a major part of rugby and will rightly play a big role in deciding who wins this Lions Test series but if World Rugby are serious about player welfare and sending the right message to younger fans, they won’t want anything that happens in it to undo the vast amount of work they’ve done over the past few years.
Gatland won’t be the only one clarifying things in the days to come and there will be a huge onus on Nic Berry, Ben O’Keeffe and Mathieu Raynal, who take charge of the first, second and third Tests respectively, to get the big calls right and, crucially, not be afraid to make those big decisions as well.
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