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Ref Watch: Again, more hard to fathom head contact calls

By Paul Smith
Matthew Carley (C) wait for a TMO decision during an international rugby union match between South Africa and Wales at the Cape Town Stadium in Cape Town on July 16, 2022. (Photo by RODGER BOSCH / AFP) (Photo by RODGER BOSCH/AFP via Getty Images)

Based on this summer’s appointments it would appear that Matthew Carley and Karl Dickson both now sit above Luke Pearce in World Rugby’s thoughts and with Wayne Barnes almost certainly ahead of all of them England are set to provide four referees to next year’s World Cup.


Carley’s latest Tier One outing came in rainy Cape Town where he put in another consistent display as the Springboks forwards wrestled their way to a series-clinching win over gallant Wales.

The Wayne Barnes influence
Each time I see Carley I am struck by the similarity between his refereeing style and that of his 99-times capped colleague who earlier in the day took charge of Ireland’s landmark win in New Zealand.

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Johnny Sexton and Andy Farrell after winning historic series in New Zealand | Ireland post-match press conference
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Johnny Sexton and Andy Farrell after winning historic series in New Zealand | Ireland post-match press conference

Perhaps the strongest hallmark of Barnes’ refereeing is his clarity of thought and the accuracy he brings to the decision-making process and this is also very evident in Carley’s approach.

After making a try-saving tackle on Damian Willemse, Dan Biggar was subsequently penalised on the ground and his slightly quizzical look was met with: “He released the ball and got back to his feet, you have to release him.”

Later when penalising the hosts after they sought to win ball on the ground following a breakdown captain Siya Kolisi was advised: “We had a ruck, the ball is still within a metre so you can’t dive on it.”

Clear, unambiguous and 100 per cent accurate.

Quarter 1Quarter 2Quarter 3Quarter 4
Pens against SA0442
Pens against Wales6333



Pieter-Steph Du Toit penalty
It was good to see Carley penalise Pieter-Steph Du Toit just after the half-hour mark when he subtly obstructed Alun Wyn Jones as the Wales replacement attempted to block Jaden Hendrickse’s kick from the base.

The home side’s no.7 was stood in the guard position parallel with the back foot of the breakdown to enable his scrum half to lift the ball then box kick from directly behind him.

Because he was not in front of the ball Du Toit was onside, but when he slightly shifted his arms to push the former Lions skipper away from his no.9 he became guilty of a cynical obstruction which most referees would not pick up as they followed the flight of the kick.

Scrum Problems
When Carley reviews his performance he is likely to spend most time on the scrum where he failed to find a solution to the issues facing him.


It seemed from the outset that Wales were struggling to control the home side’s set-piece power and as a result the visitors shipped three scrum penalties in the first quarter followed by a fourth around the half-hour mark before a fifth was awarded in the second half against their replacement front-rowers.

There were also two penalties awarded against South Africa – both on the Wales feed – which meant only the final scrum of the match produced clean possession.


In addition to a 5-2 penalty count, four of the eight scrums required a reset.

Wet underfoot conditions undoubtedly played a part but on those occasions that Carley found fault with the visitors’ body positions and awarded penalties he effectively removed the accidental slip as a factor.

Because both Wales props were penalised twice it became difficult to single one person out for a yellow card for persistent infringement. However, given that clear trends were present at the set-piece, for me the team warning which eventually arrived had to come earlier – probably after Wales were penalised at all of the first three scrums.

The head contact conundrum
As per my comments on Barnes’ decision not to red card Ireland’s Andrew Porter, the decision-making process with which match officials are being required to work since the adoption of head contact protocols that remove the question of intent is extremely difficult.

Deciding how much force is present and what mitigation may exist is much trickier than determining if a defender has consciously done something which has caused the ball-carrier to suffer a head injury and inconsistency is therefore rife.

There were two further instances to throw into the debate during this contest.

Firstly, when Makazole Mapimpi made contact with Nick Tompkins as the Wales centre was off balance, Carley took minimal time to decide that his starting point was a yellow card but the fact that Wales No.12 was already going to ground would allow him to mitigate down to a penalty.


This seemed a common-sense call with which it was hard to argue – but as Schalk Britz observed in commentary we have all seen this type of incident handled very differently.

Then when a replay showed Owen Watkin’s upright tackle to have caused a head-on-head collision with Siya Kolisi seemingly of exactly the type for which Porter and Angus Ta’ava have recently received cards, there was no TMO intervention at all. In commentary Jamie Roberts said: “Owen Watkin is in trouble here” but nothing followed.

How rugby squares the circle between the litigators who are pursuing the sport in the wake of the tragic injuries suffered by the likes of Steve Thompson and the need to allow for the type of accidental collisions which typify a high-speed contact sport is a pressing question. This week it has been instructive to hear leading figures including Eddie Jones believe the current approach is not working – but where we go next is anyone’s guess.


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