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Ref Watch: Andrew Brace not at fault, England were

By Paul Smith
Andrew Brace /(Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

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In a new feature, former referee Paul Smith looks at the refereeing performances of officials during each Six Nations match. Welcome to ‘Ref Watch’. 

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England v Scotland (Andrew Brace – Ireland)
When preparing to take charge of the Calcutta Cup Andrew Brace would have been aware that England spent 2020 giving away reams of needless penalties and that getting his key messages across to a side which seems intent on pushing every available disciplinary envelope might be a challenge.

He would also have known that forecast wet weather and a Scotland side that finished last year’s competition strongly would make for a tight, competitive contest in which accuracy in the award of kickable penalties would be especially vital.

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Itoje reacts to England’s shock loss:

In the event both these likelihoods became reality and despite what social media appears to have determined the Irish official can look back on a job well done.

Referees at every level ask themselves one big question on their journey home – would the outcome have been the same without my decision-making… or put another way did the better side win? With their superiority at the scrum, lineout and breakdown and their outstanding defence Scotland were unquestionably deserving winners irrespective of their concession of under 30 per cent of awarded penalties.

Quarter 1Quarter 2Quarter 3Quarter 4
Pens against England73 (YC)41
Pens against Scotland13 (YC)20

 

What worked and what didn’t?
The reducing by-quarter penalty trend is a big tick in Brace’s post-match review since it suggests his approach worked across the 80 minutes, while quarter four shows the players found it entirely possible to operate within parameters he set.

His interaction with TMO Joy Neville was generally good, and especially so in the sin-binning of Finn Russell. Brace’s positioning and the speed of Ben Youngs’ sidestep meant the off-balance fly half’s instinctive trip on the England No.9 went unspotted in real-time. Once Neville drew his attention to it a yellow card was an appropriate outcome.

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Ref watch

Finn Russell was binned for a trip /PA

The scrum – where Scotland mostly had the upper hand – was a problem area throughout and when Brace looks back at the match he will ask himself what (if anything) he could have done differently. Only three of the ten scrums completed and in addition to four penalty and three free kick awards four setpieces were reset.

Talking Points
Everyone who has refereed for a reasonable period of time has one or two teams they consistently find difficulty with and others with whom everything always just seems to work.

Often this is a simple matter of finding the wavelength at which everyone is able to harmoniously operate. The players and coaches need to understand what the official wants while he/she seeks to get to grips with what they are trying to achieve.

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A lot of this boils down to communication, then to whether those involved are willing to listen, process information and respond (or alternatively if their leaders are strong and smart enough to swiftly bring non-listeners and slow learners into line).

Based on their repeated concession of huge numbers of penalties, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that England are from a refereeing perspective one of these frustratingly difficult teams. They play too close to the edge too much of the time, and the fact that multiple different officials from Northern and Southern Hemispheres keep penalising the same things suggests the problem lies within the team’s coaching and leadership.

France have recently worked with now-retired 2019 World Cup final referee Jerome Garces in an attempt to improve their discipline, and if Eddie Jones is yet to pick up the phone to a similarly well-qualified figure he is missing a trick.

Jerome Garces gestures

Referee Jerome Garces gestures during the World Cup Pool B game between New Zealand and South Africa in Yokohama (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

When Brace reviews his performance he will see England conceded nine penalties in the opening 23 minutes (actually ten since Billy Vunipola’s sin-binning for a high tackle came when advantage was being played from the Saracens’ No.8’s earlier offside).

Since England conceded only six further penalties in the remaining 57 minutes Brace may conclude that his team warning and subsequent sanction came a few penalties too late. Let’s hope England conclude they need to do something about their discipline rather than again hiding behind a slightly disingenuous “we got on the wrong side of the referee.”

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Ref Watch: Andrew Brace not at fault, England were

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