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Nigel Owens rethinks initial take on late Calcutta Cup scrum drama

By Chris Jones
Nigel Owens reffing a scrum /Getty

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Nigel Owens has backed New Zealand referee Ben O’Keeffe’s decision not to award England a late scrum penalty that could have saved them from a 20-17 defeat by Scotland.


Eddie Jones the England head coach highlighted the decision after the match claiming “I am preparing a video mate” suggesting he could take the matter to World Rugby by following the lead of Rassie Erasmus’s whose infamous video saw the Springbok chief banned for attacking a match official.

However, Owens thinks O’Keeffe had no option but to constantly reset the scrum rather than award a penalty and said in his Daily Telegraph column “Regarding the final scrums when England were chasing a penalty, the scrum was one area of the game that never really got going – I think only one of them was completed. All the others were either penalties, free-kicks or reset.

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“That made it very difficult for referee Ben O’Keeffe, and everyone really, to say which side had any dominance at the scrum, because the referee was not able to build up a picture of which side were on top. The referee was unable to change player behaviour to get good outcomes at the scrum. That’s not his fault, as long as he has done everything to change player behaviour, if so then it comes down to the front rows.

“Which means when you reached those final scrums, which had to be completed even though the clock had gone red, as a referee you did not have in your mind a clear picture of who was stronger in the scrum. They kept going down on the engagement, apart from the penultimate scrum which spun around.

“Initially I thought that could be an England penalty, but reviewing it, that was not a clear-cut penalty either way. A reset was a totally understandable decision for him to give, taking into account the context of the game. You have to be 100 per cent sure. In that position, I would have given a reset as well, given it looks as though both packs swung it round.

“England’s choice to kick to the corner near the end will be questioned, just as it was in the 2015 Rugby World Cup too against Wales. History almost repeated itself. You’re damned if you, damned if you don’t in that situation. But it’s definitely understandable why they went for that decision over the draw.


“One interesting moment was when Joe Marler threw into the lineout and gave away a free-kick for not being five metres, when Cowan-Dickie was off the field. That led to a penalty from which Scotland took the lead. People might have asked why Jamie George was not brought on for the lineout, but if you have a front-row player sin-binned you can only take a player off at the next scrum, because throwing in at the lineout is not deemed to be a specialist position.

“England, to bring George on, would have had to make a tactical replacement, which would have meant the player who came off would not be able to return to the field, unless for a player undergoing a head injury assessment or as a blood replacement.

“Other than the penalty try though, there were few major talking points for the officials to address. That was a really enjoyable, exciting Calcutta Cup game.”



Owens also backed the New Zealand referee in his ruling that Luke Cowan-Dickie’s yellow card also required the awarding of a penalty try.” Even the most passionate England supporter can’t argue that Luke Cowan-Dickie deliberately knocked the ball forward and into touch, which is a penalty and yellow card in itself,” he said.

“The next question is, would a try probably have been scored? The key thing for people to remember is, it’s not a case of definitely or possibly. It’s about whether the match officials think ‘would a try probably have been scored’. It’s a big decision, a tough decision, but to be honest I don’t think you can argue with the outcome. Scotland would probably have scored.

“Once Cowan-Dickie makes that action, he is no longer part of the equation of what happens next. You cannot say that if he had not deliberately knocked the ball on, that he would have then stopped a try being scored by Darcy Graham. He’s eliminated from the equation once that illegal action happens. What he might have done goes out the window. The next question is, would Graham have caught that ball? And if so, would the covering English defence have reached him in time? I don’t think so.

“You therefore can’t argue with the decision. It was a fair call, a pivotal call, but they reached the right conclusion. Had Cowan-Dickie attempted to actually catch the ball then it would have just been a knock-on. But you can clearly see from his actions that he slaps it forward. Scotland from there had their tails up, kicking the penalty to take the lead and holding on for the win.”


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